Landmark results from neuroscience research are debunking yet another myth about aging – that the brain continually loses cells and naturally dims with age.
On the contrary, recent studies show that if we continue to challenge our minds and stimulate our creativity, we not only feel better, we also cause our brains to sprout new branches, or dendrites. These new branches actually improve brain function and help compensate for the small loss of brain cells that comes with age.
In effect, the aging brain responds to mental exercise in much the same way that muscle responds to physical exercise.
In his new book, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, world-renowned psychiatrist and gerontologist Gene Cohen shares the latest findings in brain and aging research, and offers a plan for leading a creative and fulfilling life well beyond retirement.
For those who don’t think they have creative potential, Dr. Cohen emphasizes that creativity is not just for geniuses. One does not have to be born with inherited talent or raised in a special environment to be creative. It is universal. He calls it “an equal opportunity attribute.”
Dr. Cohen makes a distinction between creativity with a “big C” and creativity with a “little c.” He defines “big C” creativity as extraordinary accomplishments of unusual people, such as renowned artists, scientists and inventors. Creativity with a “little c” refers to personal creativity, grounded in the various and sundry realities of life. It is something one has brought into being and which has enhanced one’s life and given satisfaction. It could be a new recipe, a floral arrangement, a letter or poem that you wrote, or a new trick you taught your dog. Both dimensions of creativity are valuable, and both continue throughout the human life cycle, independent of age.
Here are just 10 of the ways you can keep your brain young.
Play games that challenge your mind
Do a crossword puzzle. Play charades. Challenge a friend or family member to a game of chess, checkers, Scrabble or cribbage. These can all provide mental stimulation. Word-oriented activities are especially helpful; studies have shown that people can continue to build vocabulary up into their 80s.
Visit the hobby or crafts section at a bookstore
Even if you’re not sure what you might be interested in, browsing may spark a new interest or remind you of a longstanding interest that you never had time to pursue.
Take a course
Look for new learning opportunities. Throughout our lives, these challenges have presented themselves naturally, through school and work. After retirement, we need to search out growth opportunities by taking a class at a local high school or college, or volunteering for a position that will enable us to develop new skills and be stimulated by new people and ideas.
Write your autobiography
Autobiographies are not just for famous people. Telling your own life story has two benefits. It serves as a valuable, personal gift to family members, friends and your community. It also can set you on a personal journey that can be very enlightening.
Volunteering is a way to share experiences and knowledge, and to remain socially active. It is also a way to gain new knowledge and training in an area of interest, while providing a service to a favorite charity or organization. Even in their early 80s, about 28 percent of older people are still doing volunteer work.
Consider a new career
Visit a career counselor and explore the possibilities for part-time, full-time or temporary work. Attitudes toward older workers have changed in the past 30 years. While ageist attitudes used to prevail in many offices, surveys now indicate that executives view older employees as more conscientious and hard-working than younger employees, and possibly better at interpersonal communication. With the service industry predicted to grow 30 percent in the next 10 years, the climate for job placement among older workers has never been better.
Visit someplace new
Pick a new place you’d like to visit and go there, either alone or with a friend. It can be as close as a new lunch café in town, or as far as the Galapagos Islands. Write about it and send the story to a friend or the local newspaper.
Organize a dinner and video discussion group for a circle of friends
This has the dual benefit of serving as a regularly scheduled social activity – something to look forward to — as well as a forum for stimulating thought-provoking discussions about a variety of film topics.
Write letters regularly to family members or friends
So few people write letters these days, they’ll be thrilled to receive a personal letter. If you know someone who is house-bound or lacks much social interaction, they’ll appreciate it even more. Feel free to be creative and funny in your writing. You’ll be stimulating your creative side while at the same time entertaining loved ones.
Develop a dream journal
Dreams are among the best reminders of our inner creativity. Their form and content are the essence of creativity. Write them down and/or draw them. It may open your eyes to your inner thoughts and desires, and help you tap into your creative potential.