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Neurological Research Confirms the Power of the Aging Brain

Middle age is often referred to as a period of crisis, the beginning of a long downhill slide toward decrepitude and death. But neurological studies are proving this widely held belief to be false. The Mature Mind, by Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University takes a positive view of aging, a process in which the brain is continually reshaped by lifelong learning and opportunities for growth.

Like a fine wine, the human brain gets better with age. Dr. Cohen says the current view of aging is outmoded. "There is no denying the problems that are associated with aging," he says, "but what has been denied and trivialized is the potential (of the human brain), and unless you have a focus on potential, you can't ultimately have a true health promotion and prevention focus."

In The Mature Mind, Dr. Cohen challenges the myths of the aging brain. For one, he says the older brain is more resilient, adaptable and capable than a younger brain. He adds that, contrary to popular belief, the brain grows new brain cells and reshapes itself in response to experience and learning.

"You need to think of brain cells as trees and their projections as branches. They are called dendrites," he says. "Each brain cell involved in higher intellectual functioning has the capacity to sprout hundreds or even thousands of branches, each single cell. And, as we challenge the brain, our brain cells sprout new dendrites, like a tree sprouting new branches. So, that's how you keep your brain vital."

The Mature Mind describes four overlapping phases of brain development during the second half of life, beginning around age 40 with what is called midlife evaluation. "It's really a time of quest, exploring where you are and where you are going," says Dr. Cohen. "That has very productive and constructive outcomes. It's not until middle age that we, for the first time, begin to have more of a confluence or congruence of our left and right brain working together. This allows the heart and the mind in many ways to work more closely together. And that coming together allows us to see things in different ways and to explore things differently. And that is starting to happen in middle age, which helps that middle life re-evaluation process."

What follows, in roughly 20-year periods, Dr. Cohen contends, are mental phases called liberation, summing up, and encore, in which we open to a new freedom to speak our minds, review our lives to find meaning, and reaffirm our beliefs in the face of loss and adversity.

These phases correspond to changes in the brain and are confirmed by thousands of personal interviews conducted over 30 years by Dr. Cohen, a psychologist and gerontologist. He says it is never too late to boost your brainpower. But, he says, like physical exercise, you have to work at it to make a difference.

"With mental exercise you want to feel like you are sweating, mentally. And that could be a hobby, taking (studying) a new language, a new course, anything that you feel that you are working hard at: word games, reading and writing," he says. "Each… episode or session… or practice, you discover your skills are growing. And a sense of mastery is also associated with positive health outcomes."

The best brain-exercising activities, according to a major NIH leisure activity study in 2003, are dancing, board games, playing musical instruments, crossword puzzles and reading. Dr. Cohen says mastery of such hobbies, when combined with social engagement, has been linked to better physical and mental health among older adults. "Biologists have found that we get a bit of an immune system boost with good social relationships. We produce more cells that ward off infection or cancer," he says.

Dr. Cohen says the best news about the aging brain is that we all have control over its well-being, and that through simple, enjoyable activities we can nurture the extraordinary power of our mature minds.