For centuries, people in cultures throughout the world have believed that increasing age is associated with increasing wisdom. Not just knowledge and experience, but wisdom. Is this an old wives' tale, or is there something to it?
There is growing evidence that as we age our brains actually become stronger. Everyone missed it, because the emphasis was on memory, concentration and thinking speed, and those may all deteriorate with age. What changes is that as we age we become more efficient at making associations rather than thinking linearly. we also recruit regions of the brain that may have lain dormant for years. At the same time, different types of mental training, including meditation, can improve many aspects of our cognitive abilities, and may also enrich and even grow appropriate regions of the brain.
Some new data from a study being conducted at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina suggests that it is possible to use a fitness program for your brain that can improve thinking skills, attention and concentration as reliably as lifting weights can increase muscle strength.
Preliminary findings from the study, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity, were presented last week at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping conference in Chicago.
As we age, we do experience changes in how we perceive the information that our senses gather from the environment. As I mentioned older adults combine information from the different senses more readily than do younger adults. This is known as sensory integration, and the down side is that it can lead to difficulties in blocking out distracting sights and sounds while still maintaining focus on important information. You are probably familiar with the "Cocktail Party Phenomenon." You are in a loud room, but because someone is saying something interesting, you are able to block out uninteresting information. This technical term for this is cortricofugal inhibition. As we get older it gets more difficult to do the inhibiting.
The Brain Fitness in Older Adults (B-fit) study has been designed to establish whether eight hours of brain exercise can improve the ability of healthy older adults, ages 65 to 75 years, to filter out unwanted sights and sounds.
The B-fit study uses fMRI to visualize blood flow and brain activity to determine how attention training affects brain function. The training involves either a structured one-on-one mental work-out program or a group brain exercise program. During the one-on-one sessions, the volunteers were asked to ignore distracting information and tasks get harder as the eight-week training progresses. For the group sessions, participants learn new information relevant to healthy aging and are then tested on their ability to apply the new information.
All participants had an fMRI scan during a distraction task. They had to look for target words or numbers while ignoring distracting sounds. The scans showed brain activity in areas related to both sight and sound. Follow-up fMRIs showed that in the group receiving the one-on-one training, activity related to sight was increased, while activity related to sound was decreased. In addition, performance on the task was improved.
So the data do indeed suggest that attention training is a way to reduce older adults' susceptibility to distracting stimuli and therefore help improve concentration.
And what about wisdom?
I have written in Healing, Meaning and Purpose that "Wisdom is the integration of understanding:" making more new associations and drawing conclusions based on a new perspective is a gift of aging. The training enables us to make sense of and communicate our conclusions.
When it comes to the brain, use it or lose!