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Keep a boomer brain sharp: shake up what you know

Posted Jan 05 2010 6:33am

Brain1 Brains in middle age, with increased life spans stretching from the 40s to the late 60s, get more easily distracted.  Sorry to say it's not all that unusual for a boomer brain at middle age.  I don't just forget whole books, but movies I just saw, breakfasts I just ate, and the names.... Who are you?

Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into what's called the default mode, during which the brain wonders off and begins to daydream.  Given all this, the question arises, can an old brain learn, and then remember what it learns?

Over the past several years, scientists have looked deeper into how brains age and confirmed that they continue to develop through and beyond middle age.  Many longheld views, including the one that 40% of brain cells are lost, have been overturned.  What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons.

Recently, researchers have found even more positive news.  The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture.  If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can. 

Idea The trick is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them.  Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young.  With a brain already full of well connected pathways, adult learners should "jiggle their synapses a bit" by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Kathleen Taylor, who is 66 and a professor at St. Mary's College of California.

"There's a place for information," Dr. Taylor says.  "We need to know stuff.  But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world.  If you always hang around with those you agree with read things that agree with what you already know, you're not going to wrestle with your established brain connections."

Source: Adult Learning Neuroscience, The New York Times, January 3, 2010

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