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Age and mental deterioration don't necessarily go together!

Myths about mental deterioration.
There are lots of myths about the aging mind. This chapter shows that “old dogs can, indeed, learn new tricks.” Age has little to do with mental capacity and ability.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the myths about the mind after forty:
1. Myth; “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” The older we get the harder it is to learn. NOT TRUE! We can and do learn to the day we check out. Each new experience teaches us something. In fact many things are easier learned now than when we were younger because we have a wealth of experience to found our new information on. I’m now 74, pushing 75, and as a physician frequently covering emergency rooms, urgent care centers, and occasional disaster situation, I have to constantly take CME or Continuing Medical Education courses to keep myself abreast of new techniques and to keep my credentials and medical licenses in force. Every course I take has physicians of all ages participating and us “mature” docs do every bit as well as the “youngsters,” in fact frequently learning the new faster and easier because of our wealth of experience in the field and constant dialogue with our peers. Experience is still the best teacher around and the older you get the more experiences you’ve had. As new things come along, be it by experience, from a text book or lectures and conversations, the older more experienced mind will usually understand quicker and learn faster with often less effort. The new material will often find a strong foundation of experience or previous knowledge to build upon.
Look around on college campuses today and you’ll see many a senior citizen taking classes on every subject under the sun and if you ask their younger classmates, they’ll tell you the “older” students give them stiff competition and tend to raise the class average. Many “retired old folks” give up their jobs just to start new careers having to successfully gain new and often difficult skills and knowledge which they do, usually with little difficulty.
Yes, old dogs can learn new trick and twists to those tricks, especially if they’ve had some old tricks to build on. Aging is not a downhill ride. We actually gain with age. Older people have talents, skills, abilities, knowledge and experience that outshine the younger set easily. We have greater vocabularies, have greater understanding of written and spoken concepts, have a greater capacity for reasoning and good judgment, all because of a wealth of experience that youth can’t have had. There is a reason why Masters’ Classes are taught by older artist to younger musicians, why the top ranks in the military are older, why corporate leaders have grayer heads then middle management. Experience comes with age and so does wisdom and you probably won’t lose that as long as you continue to use it.

2. Myth: Our brain cells disappear by tens of thousands a day so that when we are older we have little left. NOT TRUE! Oh yes we lose cells all through the body and replace them with new ones, a process that begins at birth and continues through life. The brain also loses and gains cells continually. But cells do not cause thought, learning, memory, reflex or function. Connections and circuits do. These circuits do not break just because new cells which are their building blocks change off with old used up ones. We are always building new connections as we learn and reinforcing the old pathways when we think and practice our skills. And if one of these pathways is interrupted, the brain is perfectly capable of bypassing the “defective pathway with a new or alternate route. That’s why exercising the mind is as important as exercising the muscles of the body. Challenge keeps it functioning efficiently. Learning, action and practice builds new pathways of knowledge and skills and strengthens old ones.
3. Myth: Forgetfulness is the first sign that something is wrong with your brain and the mind just goes down hill form there. NOT TRUE! Actually, we completely forget very little, but if we don’t use certain information for a while we tend to kind of “put it out of our mind” or thoughts. It gets filed away to make room for the things more important and current to us. What we “forget” or remember has more to do with priorities than the ability to retain. It is important that we be able to keep at hand what is important and put on the “back burner” or store away that which is no longer vital.
4. Myth: If you think you have a biologic reason for your memory losses you probably have Alzheimer’s or some other disabling disease. NOT TRUE! People who have a biologic cause for their “memory problems” rarely care about them. Biologic memory problems do their damage before you yourself notice. By the time they affect your memory you are beyond noticing or caring. It is the relatives and friends who notice the problems. And if it is early Alzheimer’s, there is considerable hope. Alzheimer research is advancing at such a pace now that it is likely that by the next decade we will see more and newer drugs to dramatically slow the progress of this disease.
5. Myth: Once your memory starts to go it can only get worse. NOT TRUE! Remember, priority has more to do with our memory than does mental ability or capacity. We go through many changes and periods in our lives. Our interests and priorities change. We may feel forgetful and mentally inactive for periods of time when we are bored, undergoing value changes, or are going through life cycle changes. Then when we start in a new direction and different things begin to interest us we become mentally alert and sharp again. Moods have a lot to do with our abilities and motivations, and we must be motivated to be mentally alert, active and retentive.

Apathy to Atrophy ... Stimulation to Sharpness!

Like the muscles of the body, disuse will cause atrophy ... but brain stimulation as with muscle stimulation, can stop the atrophy and then reverse the process to growth and increased mental function. We must keep ourselves interested in what goes on around us. The more we get out and mingle with the world the more stimulation we get. Stimulation and experiences lead to excitement, interest, curiosity and renewed learning. Mental activity of any kind will improve memory and mental skills. If all we do is sit and watch TV there won’t be much worth remembering

Your memory is better than you think.
Oh really? So why can’t I remember simple things like names, where I put things, things the kids tell me I did on trips, and I can’t remember what else? It’s those priorities again. As we get older we know more people. We can’t remember them all, there are too many other important things to store and file for quick access. Those less important names we file away in harder to get to corners. If you really forgot them there would be no recognition when someone gave you the name. “Oh, yeah, now I remember!” Oh yeah! ... That means you didn’t really forget! And as we get older we possess and process more things, which also means we have more things to misplace. But the main reason we forget where we put down the keys is because we were doing something else which occupied our minds and we inadvertently laid them down in route. Every one does it at all ages. We are just more sensitive to our misplacement as we age.

And when the kids, not really kids any more but my kids, have a laugh about something I did when we took them to Disney Land, and I can’t remember it, how is that explained? Priorities again! That trip surely meant a lot more to them that it did to you, no matter how big a thrill it might have been. And chances are you had more of other things on you mind at the time that the kids did.

Exercising the mind.
Get out of your retirement mode. Even if you aren’t retired yet, we tend to slow down physically and mentally as we age. Don’t let it happen to you. Instead of thinking about slowing down, realign your priorities for your next life style change, not retirement, but new ventures to broaden your horizons and interests, pursuits and experiences. Think about adult education, travel, reading, writing, music, hobbies, nature and all the things you wanted to do but never had the time for. Consider getting another degree and maybe a new career. You have time … lots of time … a half a lifetime … the whole second half.
Also, there are strategies to help keep your memory sharp. Pay attention when you are trying to remember something, not letting distractions get in the way. Focus on what you are trying to remember or what you are trying to put into memory. Distraction is probably the biggest one cause for forgetfulness. Focus! Take notes. Make lists. You did that when you were younger; continue to make lists now. Repeat names when introduced and use them in conversations. Take an interest in the people you meet. This is another cause for older people to have difficulty with names, they are often less interested in meeting new people.

Keep up the circulation and aeration of the mind.

To keep the mind functioning at peak performance you have to keep up your physical fitness as well mental fitness. The brain uses more oxygen than any organ in the body. To keep it well nourished you have to keep oxygenated blood flowing at full force. That means keeping up a healthy cardiopulmonary system. A healthy heart is necessary to pump the blood and healthy lungs have to load that blood with fresh, clean oxygen. A good aerobic exercise program as described in this book is essential.

Don’t poison those delicate fibers.
There are lots of poisons waiting to pick off those delicate fibers and synapses that produce mental function, including alcohol, tobacco, over the counter drugs, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, pollution, etc. For example tobacco has hundreds of lethal chemicals in its smoke that attack nerve and brain cells as they do all the cells of the body. Furthermore, since the health and function of the brain is so vitally dependent on a huge supply of clean fresh oxygen, the displacement of this vital oxygen by the smoke in the breath you take into your lungs has an immediate effect as well as the long term effect of habitual smoking.

Excessive alcohol use leads directly to organic brain syndrome, a severe form of dementia. Alcohol use should always be moderate and only by people who are perfectly in control of their drinking. Marijuana and illegal drugs have a direct biological effect on brain cells that can only be described as devastating. Prescription and over the counter medications vary greatly in their effect on the brain, mental function and memory. None should be used without the knowledge, supervision and direction of your physician or pharmacist. Your pharmacist is perhaps your greatest ally in your efforts to reach your maximum life potential. You may go to several physicians for various aspects of your health, but you should use only one pharmacist how can monitor all the medications you are taking in case several doctors prescribe medications which can potentiate or work against one another. Also, you should always tell your doctors what medications you are taking, be they over the counter or prescribed by other physicians.

Use it, you won’t lose it!
Remember, exercising your mind helps keep it sharp. So how does one exercise the mind? Get creative! There are many organizations out there to help you get creative and inventive and exercise the mind. Organizations include Elderhostel, AARP, YMCA, Community programs, Church programs, Art programs, Writing clubs, travel clubs, and organizations such the American Heart Association, American Stroke Association, Alzheimer’s Association, Parkinson Disease Association, Diabetes Association, etc. There are two ways to use these and other organizations, all of which can be beneficial to you; one is to utilize their services and the other is to volunteer to them.
We have a wealth of experience and knowledge that can still help others. It is our choice to find ways to utilize them for the good of others and ourselves or to let it go to waste and dissipate.

Read "Sharpening The Aging Mind"

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