‘Use it or lose it’ for life

I still remember how much fun it was to get my second master’s degree and how sad it was when the last class was finished.
The university was a two-and-a-half hour drive from our home. I drove up every Tuesday afternoon, stayed overnight, and came back Wednesday morning. And my mother went with me almost every time.
We had a fun ritual. A cup of coffee at Alexanderwohl. Sandwiches at Hillsboro. Restroom break at Abilene.
It was a busy time as I was working four days a week and had two teenage children. But with the help of my husband, who cooked almost every day for two years, I managed to finish my degree.
It was refreshing to go back to school and fun to work with the students on group projects.
I was highly-motivated and, for the first time in my life, achieved an ‘A’ average. After all, I was almost 50 years old and inexperienced students in their mid-20s were no match for me.
In those two exhilarating years, I got rid of old ideas and got out of old ruts. I was a new person, with renewed enthusiasm and enhanced skills to use in my career.
Going back to school, no matter what your age, is one of the best ways to stimulate your brain.
In fact, engaging fully in life–physically, intellectually, socially, and spiritually–may be our most powerful tool in overcoming the decline associated with aging.
“Disengagement is the major disease of older people,” says Dr. Walter Bortz, geriatrician and author of the book “Dare to be 100.”
“Use it or lose it is not a trite aphorism,” he stresses. “It is a profound truth.”
As recently as the mid-1990s, researchers thought older people lost nerve cells in many parts of their brains. But now research at the U.S. National Institute of Health has proven the old brain, as well as the young brain, is capable of generating new nerve cells.
“Most of the decline is not due to aging; it is intellectual flab,” says Bortz. “Like a leg in a cast, when unused the brain deteriorates.
“When a certain part of the brain is stimulated by a life task, more blood goes to that area,” he writes. “Intellectual challenge and enrichment thereby cause actual structural changes in the brain.
“It grows, just like your biceps do when you perform chin-ups.”
So what can you do to strengthen your brain power?
Scientists from the Brain Research Institute at University of California—Los Angeles say the important thing is to be actively involved in areas unfamiliar to you. Anything that’s intellectually challenging can help.
Exercising, socializing, and being exposed to stimulating and interesting surroundings actually can double the number of new nerve cells being formed.
So whether you decide to go back to school or set a goal to do the daily crossword puzzle, search out opportunities to stretch your knowledge and exercise your brain.
Play challenging games. Try a musical instrument. Form discussion groups.
Learn to repair things that you’ve never repaired before. The actual repair is not the important thing—it’s the challenge that matters.
And day by day, as new nerve cells form, your brain power will grow.
Marie Snider is an award-winning health writer and syndicated columnist. Write her at thisside60@cox.net

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