Reverse education

No matter how old you are, learning new skills can reverse age-related deterioration of brain functions

Old man passing out of graduation

In Australia, there is a college in which no one under 55 years of age is allowed admission. The idea is to cater to the curiosity bug of the elderly. If an elderly person wants to know how a pathologist takes red blood cell count, a short course is arranged for him that gives the senior hands-on experience doing it. Closer home, a senior IAS officer sought government admission to the first year of medical college. When his request was declined, he enrolled for graduation in the science stream once again. What we have here are people in their senior years trying to learn. Are these perversions? Certainly not. They are ways to maintain robust mental health.

Use it or lose it

Engaging your brain in challenging mental activities as you grow older, slows down brain-ageing, keeps the brain young and prevents Alzheimer's disease and dementia. An experiment with rats that had toys to play with showed that they had more synaptic neuronal connections compared to those rats that were deprived of such stimulation.

Brain exercises such as computer games, crossword puzzles, chess, learning music or a foreign language and memory exercises have been used to facilitate recovery from brain damage caused by head injury, stroke, diabetes, infarct and chronic schizophrenia. Back in 1915, American psychologist Shepherd Ivory Franz showed that persons paralysed for over 25 years were able to recover with brain-stimulating exercises.

Mental exercises can heal a sick brain. Scientist and mathematician John Nash is a striking example. He was seriously mentally ill, afflicted with schizophrenia for more than a decade. He was hospitalised at least thrice because he would escape each time and refused psychiatric drugs. Nash famous for his "Game theory", later on went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics. In an interview, he specifically attributed his recovery to brain exercises like chess and computer games and calls this strategy 'cognitive therapy'.

Do the new

Seniors who carry on working even after retirement often boast of being 'active'. However, this kind of being 'active' doesn't help the brain because they are only exercising the pre-existing old neuronal circuitry.

Old memories have had the advantage of repeated mental practice or recall over the years. Therefore, the cliche, 'old memories die hard', holds true. They are the last to fade away in dementia and Alzheimer's. They are also stored in locations distinct from recent memory. It's during learning that new neuronal connections are formed, says Professor Merzenich from the University of California, San Francisco.

Learning a new language or trying a mid-age career change involves having to learn afresh like a child, without the advantage of prior experience at the task. Our brain has to be in full focus on the task. This is hard work compared to the brain work required for practising the old skill. More neurochemicals acetylcholine and dopamine are released. On such occasions, our brain is becoming younger, generating new neurons!

Learn to change the brain

Once dead, brain cells cannot be brought back to life. However, new brain cells can be formed. This is neuro-genesis. And that happens when we learn a new skill.

When we are in the process of picking up a new skill, new nerve cells are generated in the hippocampus. And depending upon what brain region is engaged in learning the new task, these young nerve cells migrate to the engaged brain region and start to function in their new location. It's in the hippocampus that new mental associations, new learning occurs before it's shifted to higher brain regions for permanent storage.

If you can't practice a new skill physically, just imagine yourself doing it. Scientists had one group of persons practice a skill for a week and saw the improvement not only in their performance, but also in the brain map of the corresponding brain region. But this was expected. However, what was unexpected was that the second group that 'practised' the same skill in their minds, too showed improvements in brain function and map. Admittedly, the changes in the 'mental only' group were weaker than in the first group but the point is that they had both structural brain change and also improvement in their functional use of the skill.

The brain is not a rigid structure but is easily malleable. Changes in the level of mental stimulation alters neural circuitry and consequently, the physical architecture of our brain, keeping it young. So keep it engaged!

Tools to keep it sharp

Chess

Anatoly Sharansky, the famous Soviet human rights activist of the late 1970s was imprisoned for his alleged spying against the then-Soviet Union. He was imprisoned for nine years, till eventually released due to political pressure and sent to Israel, where he became a cabinet minister.

During his prison term, Sharansky kept his brain in good shape by playing mental chess. He used to plan from both perspectives—a rare mental effort. Without the mental work, all his brain maps would degenerate. Several years later, when world chess champion Gary Kasparov played against the Israeli President and leaders of opposition in Israel, he defeated all but Sharansky.

Crossword puzzles

A study of 469 people over 75 years of age published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that 124 subjects who later developed dementia, over the following five-year period, were the ones who were the least active among the lot. The non-demented active seniors regularly solved crossword puzzles, played board games, read books and newspapers and participated in group discussions.

Music

Brain imaging of musicians' brains shows that many areas of their brains, such as the motor area [because they use fingers] and cerebellum, are larger than those of the non-musicians. Long-time musicians also have thicker fibres connecting the left and right sides of the brain.

Are you losing it?

When approached with information on keeping the brain active, most people say, "What do I have to do with all this? I don't have dementia or Alzheimer's". Dementia doesn't set in abruptly. It comes gradually. Alzheimer's takes ten or more years before it manifests clinically. But soft signs start over a decade in advance.

  • You open the fridge but forget what for?
  • You go to another room in your house but forget why you came there?
  • You forget the names of people you used to know?
  • You frequently forget where you kept your keys, eye glasses, pen or wallet?
  • You need to use gadgets or a pocket diary to remind yourself of important appointments or tasks?
  • You get lost while talking—you stray away in circumstantial details and forget the main argument with which you started?
  • You have to frequently ask your listener "So where was I [or were we]"?
  • You feel the name of an object or a person is 'on the tip of your tongue' and yet, you can't recall it exactly?
  • In your hometown while driving you suddenly feel for a moment that you are lost?

People with memory problems refuse to accept that they have a problem and dismiss their failure to recall recent events or learn new things as anything serious. And sometimes even proudly declare that they can recall even old events. The misconception here is 'the older the memory, the more difficult it is to recall'.

But this isn't true. The capacity to learn new things and recall recent events is lost more easily than the memory for old events. It will be too late if we wait for the old memories to switch off. So, start mental exercises as soon as you can. For best results, provide optimal nutrition for the brain.

This was first published in the June 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Ratan Singh
Ratan Singh is a certified behaviour therapist from late Prof. J. Wolpe's Unit, Temple Univ Med School, USA. His interests include Quantum Physics and its integration with spiritualism. He was the religious advisor for Chinese Buddhist students of the University of Science Medical School in Pinang, Malaysia.

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