You Can Increase Your Mental Abilities As You Get Older

Are you worried about losing your mental faculties as you age? Do you believe that your memory and abilities to concentrate and think creatively must inevitably decline as you get older?

Forget those fears. They are based on myths.

If you know how to do it you can improve your brain power through your 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.

It is often alleged that every day we live we lose several million neurones - and that, consequently, our brains become steadily less agile and less capable as the years go by.

Only because we are constantly acquiring experience, we learn, do we retain any semblance of mental agility. We disguise the ravages of age on our brains through the ability to deceive and to trick those who are younger and more mentally agile than we are.

It has for years been alleged that the steady but relentless loss of neurones explains why creativity falters as we age and why mathematicians are often said never to have any original ideas after the age of about twenty six.

All this is simply a well-established medical myth; given credibility and sustained simply through constant repetition rather than solid research.

Ask a doctor where this claim originated and you are likely to be referred to another doctor or, perhaps, a book. Check with that doctor or book and you will be referred to another expert and another book. And so it goes on - with the myth going round and round in a never-ending circle.

Surprisingly, I haven't been able to find any solid research to support the contention. It was, like the age old claim that taking vitamin E supplements would improve your sex life; just one of those mysterious medical myths.

And when you stop to think about it the myth is, indeed, quite nonsensical. There are around one thousand billion (a million million) brain cells or neurones in the average human brain. If we lost a million brain cells a day from the age of 20 the overall loss of brain cells would still be fairly insignificant a century later.

Research done at the University of California has confirmed that, in normal, healthy and active brains there is no loss of brain cells.

Other researchers, at the National Institute of Ageing, have shown that an old human brain shows just as much metabolic activity - and is, therefore, just as active and as efficient - as a young human brain.

A 70-year-old brain uses just as much oxygen and has just as good a blood flow as a 20-year-old brain. If brains lost neurones then they would need less oxygen and a reduced blood flow as they got older. The myth of neuronal decay with age was just that - a myth.

And yet it is partly this myth which has been - and is - responsible for many of the prejudices against the elderly. Many men and women who are regarded as `old' (but who may be only in their early 50s) are discovering that these prejudices result in forced early retirement, or in their being regarded by younger colleagues as irrelevant dinosaurs, incapable of originality and steeped in obstinacy.

The joyful truth is not only that your brain is not decaying as you live but that you can, if you wish, constantly improve the power of your brain (and this means your intelligence) as you get older - not by increasing the number of cells but by increasing the number of connections between the cells. You can, I repeat, improve your intelligence as you age.

You can improve your ability to think and to create, and improve the capacity of your mind, as you age; you can improve your ability to concentrate, your ability to solve problems, to plan and to sift and use new information.

Each individual brain cell (and, remember, there are a million million of them) is constantly trying to make connections with as many other cells as it possibly can.

All the brain cells are independent but they are also interdependent - they want to form as many connections as they can with other cells because it is through the connections they form that they are able to `communicate'.

If the cells in a baby's brain are not stimulated they will not connect with one another. They will simply sit there and do nothing. It is only when cells are encouraged to connect with other cells that the brain really starts to develop.

The difference between a boring, routine, dull, obedient, predictable individual and a lively, inventive, creative, thoughtful individual lies not in the number of brain cells but in the number of connections there are between the brain cells.

Clearly, therefore, intelligence is not so much related to the number of brain cells, or the size of the brain cells, as to the number of connections there are between all the existing brain cells.

And the good news is that by exercising your brain the right way you can increase the number of connections.

If you use the right triggers you can encourage your brain to become more powerful and constantly to increase its potential for calculation, memory and creativity.

Your brain can grow as you age - not only becoming more complex but also becoming more agile and more creative. There is no practical reason why your brain should not improve in efficiency right until the moment that your body expires.

Our brains have a far greater capacity than most of us ever get close to realising. Each individual brain cell has far greater potential than we ever realise.

If you know how to exercise your brain properly - and you exercise it well - it is possible to reverse any apparent decline in intelligence which may accompany the onset of Alzheimer's disease or follow a stroke.

Using your mind will help develop surplus brain tissue which will help to compensate for the tissue which has been damaged by Alzheimer's disease and will help to create new routes around the sort of damage done by a stroke.

The evidence also suggests that if you keep your mind (and your body) active you will enhance your chances of staying healthy and living to celebrate your 100th birthday.

To the extent that it can be improved and kept powerful by regular exercise the brain is not dissimilar to a muscle.

A quick look through the history books will confirm that many of the world's most notable geniuses produced their greatest achievements when they were at or beyond what would now be regarded as `retirement' age. Michelangelo began work on St Peters at the age of 63, Leonardo da Vinci was 52 when he started painting the Mona Lisa, Brahms didn't write a symphony until he was 43, Verdi wrote two of his greatest operas after the age of 70. German literary giant Johann Goethe finished writing Faust at the age of 81. Painters Henri Matisse and Claude Monet did some of their greatest work in their early 80s. Writer H.G.Wells was awarded a DSc for a doctoral thesis at the age of 78. William Gladstone became British Prime Minister for the fourth time at the age of 82 - and at the same age Winston Churchill published the first part of his four volume work A History of the English Speaking Peoples. Antonio Stradivari was still making violins at the age of 93. Bertrand Russell was in his mid 90s when he set up an International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm.

You will also find, if you look at the ages at which great men and women died, that professional writers, artists, musicians and others who fully exercise their mental faculties live - barring accidents - considerably longer than people who work for large organisations and retire early to play golf or tend to their roses.

So what can you do to increase your mental abilities as you get older?

Well, first you can forget the idea of taking any special `miracle' supplements. All around the world millions of people spend their last few decades searching for a new elixir of life. I have lost count of the number of possible candidates for this role (melatonin, DHEA and a wide variety of hormones are just a few of the recent popular candidates).

It is frequently claimed that by taking the correct mixture of wonder-hormones or minerals or vitamins it is possible to give intelligence a boost and `stay younger' in many different ways. Sadly, of course, these `elixirs of life' invariably disappoint. Worse still, many turn out to do more harm than good.

But the techniques I am about to describe will work and will have no dangerous side effects.

Whatever your age the information here could change your life - for the better!

If you are over 30 then you have probably got into the habit of assuming that every memory failure is a consequence of old age. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling nonsense. Your assumption that memory falters with age is based purely on the myth that we are all constantly losing neurones. Having accepted the myth you expect your brain to deteriorate and when you find a sign (such as a temporary incidence of forgetfulness) that suggests a mental weakness you take this as just another piece of evidence supporting the myth.

The fact is, of course, that children and teenagers forget things too. But they don't blame their temporary memory loss or even regular forgetfulness on brain decay.

And even if your medium-term memory is deteriorating your mental ability to use information is increasing. Your memory may be failing as you age but you are becoming wiser.

People under 25 may be better at learning lists of formulae and irregular verbs. But the best thinking in any society is done by the over 25s.

The myth of elderly brain decay is given extra impetus by the fact that a high percentage of individuals over the age of 50 regularly take prescription drugs (such as sleeping tablets) which can cause confusion and forgetfulness. A high percentage of prescription drugs regularly cause mental symptoms but the link between the drug and the mental symptoms is too rarely recognised. Instead of reducing or changing the drug the medical response is usually to increase the dosage - thereby making things considerably worse.

I hate to think how many patients there are in hospitals, nursing homes, rest homes and back bedrooms who have been diagnosed as suffering from senile dementia but who are, in reality, suffering from nothing more significant than a drug side effect, and who could live happily and fulfilling lives if their doctor stopped their medication. (Drug therapy must, of course, always be stopped by a doctor. Stopping drugs may need special care.)

The really exciting news is that your brain can be exercised - and its effectiveness improved - just as easily as your body can be exercised and improved. You can expand the power of your brain through exercise.

If you exercise your brain the right way you can preserve and even improve your brain - and your mental powers - even though you are ageing.

The more you use your brain the more you will improve the number of available connections and the greater the number of connections there are between individual brain cells the greater the power of your brain will be. Naturally, the greater your brainpower the greater will be your chance of success in your chosen areas of life.

(It is not by chance that many national Olympic squads now spend as much as a third of their training time working on positive thinking, visualisation and mind games. A healthy, creative and positive mind is just as important for success in any field as a healthy body.

However hard you may find it to exercise your mind - and use your brain properly - you can take comfort from the knowledge that the more you learn and the more you use your mind the easier learning and thinking creatively will become. Use it or lose it!

If you think of your brain as a computer then by constantly working it you will expand its memory and capacity. Exercise your mind regularly and you will increase the number of synaptic connections - thus increasing the capability of your brain. A bigger computer will have greater capabilities and will work faster.

Naturally, you have to learn to use the left side of your brain (which handles language, numbers, logic, analysis and lists) with the right side of your brain (which controls colour, imagination, dimension, rhythm and instinct).

Here are my 21 tips on exactly how you can improve your mental skills and agility and the power of your brain as you age.

1. Never stop learning.
If you stop learning then your brain will atrophy. The easiest way to improve your brain is to constantly set it new challenges. The more you learn the easier you will find it to learn. The tragedy is that many people over the age of 50 have forgotten how to learn. They have fallen into a groove (or a rut) and are poorly motivated. Your brain needs regular supplies of oxygen, and nutrition but it also needs regular supplies of information. You can supply it with the first two by eating sensibly and maintaining a healthy blood supply. You can supply the third by making sure that you never stop learning.
2. Look for new challenges.
You can help maintain and improve your mental alertness throughout middle age and old age by taking on new experiences and being prepared to accept change in your life. Try to look upon new circumstances as exciting challenges. If you settle down into a comfortable rut then your brain will start to atrophy. If you are for ever looking for fresh challenges and new stimulation you will find that your life will become much richer and infinitely more fun. A life which is without challenge is a life without meaning. The wider and more varied the challenges you take on the greater you will benefit. Winston Churchill's hobbies included brick laying (and building walls) and painting landscapes. The more you challenge your mind the more new brain circuitry you will build.
3. Stay involved in life and with other people.
Mental deterioration is most marked among people who stop communicating with others. The more people you meet - and the more interest you take in their lives and their problems - the better your brain will become. A 20 study of 4,000 people showed that elderly people who take on responsibilities and maintain active social lives end up being able to do far more than people who lead limited and restricted lives. It is perhaps also worth mentioning here that love (both emotional and physical) plays a vital role in maintaining good mental health. Research has shown that we are all healthier when we are loved, cuddled and touched by those whom we ourselves love.
4. Maintain good physical health.
If you're going to keep your brain in good condition it is obviously important to preserve your general health. Avoid smoking, take regular physical exercise (20 to 30 minutes three times a week will suffice) and eat a healthy diet.
5. Stretch your brain.
Just as you exercise your body so you can exercise your mind by using mind games. Games and puzzles which make you think will also improve your mental powers - and keep you thinking young. It has been shown that mental games - such as chess, backgammon, card games, crossword puzzles and so on - will all help to keep your brain in good shape. The best games require memory, mental discipline, coolness under pressure, insight, an ability to create a strategy, an ability to spot opportunities and assess risks and probabilities.
6. Don't be afraid to be different.
Do not allow yourself to be conned into behaving as you think you are expected to behave. Many people in their 50s and 60s or older feel that they have to act with decorum, dress in a certain way and generally behave in a sensible and respectable fashion. They feel that they will shock people if they begin new careers or start new relationships at that age. Why care what other people think? Don't be pushed into acting your age. Act the age you feel.
7. You need a purpose.
A clear vision of what you want - and how you are going to get it - will concentrate your mind and vastly improve your brainpower. Constant effort without purpose and direction is inevitably meaningless. Motivate and focus yourself and your energies by giving yourself a purpose and you will add meaning to your life. People who achieve their ambitions tend to die quite quickly afterwards.
8. Be determined and persistent.
Albert Einstein once admitted that: `Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me my ideas.'
9. Think creatively.
Instead of allowing yourself to think only in a linear fashion try thinking laterally and vertically too.
10. Learn to read faster.
When you are looking at documents merely in order to sift and sort through information you need to be able to speed-read. (You can, of course, read as slowly as you like when reading purely for pleasure). You may find that using a pointer (a finger or a pencil) will help you focus directly on the part of the page you are reading. And try to look at two or three words - or even a whole line of type - at once, rather than concentrating on individual letters of words.
11. Listen to music.
I have written elsewhere (particularly in my book How to Conquer Pain) about the value of music. There is, however, also evidence to show that listening to certain types of music can be mentally invigorating and can even improve a measurable IQ level. Listening to music by Mozart and Beethoven is particularly recommended.
12. Reject the word `impossible'.
Be regularly on the look out for new challenges. Make a list of the things you've always wanted to do. And start working your way down your list.
13. Develop your sense of humour.
Few skills will help you deal with life - and stay positive, optimistic and active - more effectively than a well-developed sense of humour.
14. Remain active physically.
You may not be able to run a mile but that doesn't mean that you can't walk a mile. Remain as physically active as you possibly can.
15. Alcohol can be a boon.
Research has shown that elderly male drinkers (who drink sensibly and limit their consumption of alcohol to no more than a couple of modest drinks a day) score better in intelligence tests than non-drinkers. But remember the word `sensible'. Drinking too much can wreck your brain as rapidly as any other drug.
16. Learn to commit yourself - and to begin!
You'll never finish if you don't start. Prevarication is the commonest cause of failure. If you have always wanted to write a novel then start writing one. It doesn't matter if you have to throw away the first 50 pages - just beginning will open up your mind to the possibility of success.
17. Keep a pet.
I have for decades now argued that keeping pets helps keep people healthy, and a great deal of research has been done to support this claim. The Baker Medical Research Institute in Melbourne examined 5,741 people and found that people who owned pets had significantly lower blood pressure and lower levels of cholesterol - and were less stressed mentally. Research in nursing homes has often shown that patients who are allowed to have pets are much healthier than other patients. (And yet there are still some doctors and administrators who object to patients in such homes keeping pets). The value of a pet has been underestimated by those who do not realise that a pet can be just as much a friend and a companion as another human being.
18. Be prepared to take naps.
Leonardo da Vinci took 15 minute naps every four hours or so. There is a good deal of sense in following his example. You are likely to awake refreshed and able to think better and more clearly after a nap.
19. Drink plenty of fresh water.
Water will help clear out toxins. But limit your consumption of caffeine rich drinks such as coffee and tea.
20. Get into the habit of making lists.
Help your mind and stimulate your memory by using lists and making notes. Use coloured pens and always keep a pen and notebook handy so that you can scrawl memos to yourself.
21. Lose any excess weight.
The brains of people who are overweight get less oxygen when they are asleep. Obese people who lose weight may reverse the damage which has been done and become intellectually brighter.
22. As your brain gets older so your ability to remember things that you have looked at briefly will get worse. When you were young you could probably look at a list of words and remember quite a lot of them. You can't do that as easily when you're older. You need to concentrate more. To remember where you parked the car you will need to make a conscious effort. Look at your car and its surroundings to imprint the view on your memory. Pretend that you are taking a photograph of it - blink your eyelids as though your eyes were cameras - and you'll remember it better.
23. Normally we remember around 20% of what we read. But if you really concentrate you can remember up to 70%. After reading something that you want to remember spend 60 seconds thinking about it. Make a mental comment to yourself about what you have read. Rephrase it in your mind. You will find that if you do this your memory will improve considerably.
24. As we get older we all do things without really thinking about them. We put ourselves onto `automatic pilot' and fall into a routine. Concentrate really hard and spot the things you do without thinking. And then ask yourself whether or not you could do things better if you thought about them more.
25. Try to understand things that you have to remember. You will find things easier to remember if you understand them. And try to remember key facts and key words which will help bring into your mind whole sequences of thoughts and facts.
26. If you want to remember important things try clearing your brain of trivial information. Use notebooks and diaries to record trivial material. Albert Einstein once said: `Why should I waste brain space remembering my own telephone number? I can look it up if I want to know what it is.'
27. When you are talking about something you know that you will want to remember try to concentrate hard on everything around you. Concentrate on the people you are with and the place you are in. Try to be aware of smells, sights and sounds. The more information you record the easier you will find it to remember the event. If you want to remember something that you have seen or read try closing your eyes immediately afterwards. This keeps the `image' on your retina for a little longer - and will make the image easier to recall in the future.
28. When you are trying to remember something do your best to recreate the conditions under which you learnt it. Football teams do best when playing at home (even if there isn't a crowd of home supporters) because they find it easier to remember what they've learned while training. Students do better in examinations if they take their tests in the room where they did their learning. So, if you are trying to remember the name of someone you met at a party then try to remember where you were, what you were doing, what you were wearing, what other people were wearing and what you said to the people you met. Things that you learn are bound together in your mind in time and place. If you can recreate the conditions in which you learned something then your ability to recall the facts will increase dramatically.
29. If you are struggling to remember something work your way through the alphabet. The first letter of a name or place can often `trigger' a lost memory.
30. To make it easier to remember names try to make up pictures in your mind. For example, to remember the name `Coleman' think of a man carrying a bag of coal. If you are trying to remember a name like `Vernon' which doesn't lend itself to a picture then visualise an imaginary blackboard in your mind and then write the name onto your blackboard. When you want to recall the name simply recreate your blackboard.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2011