Brain health: Why you should train your mind like an athlete’s body

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Many of us worry that the older we get, the more cognitive decline we’ll experience. As we age, our brains change and lose that youthful plasticity — it can be harder to learn new things, or easily forget names and places. But the aging brain is not necessarily designed to decline. Older people may take longer to process information, but years of experience ensures that most folks in their 70s and 80s are better at analysis and problem solving. 

Host Jonathan Bastian talks with neuroscientist, psychologist, musician, and Professor Emeritus at McGill University Daniel Levitin about what we need to do to build better brain health. Levitin explains that just as babies’ brains are sophisticated learning processors, the aging brain is also still constantly growing new neurons — and, with the right stimulation, still has a great degree of neuro-plasticity.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

Jonathan Bastian: Well, Daniel Levitin, thank you so much for making the time and joining us on KCRW, we appreciate the time. 

Daniel Levitin: It's great to be here. 

Jonathan Bastian: We just heard from Alison Gopnik a little bit about the idea of plasticity of the brain, particularly in the baby's brain. And you've been looking at the neuroscience of aging. And I wonder, what do we see happening in the brain as we get into the 60s and 70s age group? And what is the question of plasticity? How does that factor into what we see with the brain?

Daniel Levitin: Dr. Gopnik would have told you, I'm sure babies are little scientists, they're trying to explore the world. Believe it or not, those little infant brains are sophisticated statistical processors. And at the other end of the spectrum, our 60s, 70s, and 80s. We're also exploring the environment but in different ways, based on experience. So one thing we should dispel with first is the myth that you don't grow any new neurons after a certain point. That's not true. You grow new neurons your entire life. And another myth is that we can't make new neural connections, that we can't form new neural circuits, but that that's not true at all. I know people we've studied into their hundreds and beyond who are certainly making active and new connections, they're learning new things. The great Pablo Casals cellist in his 80s somewhere and journalist walked in to him for an interview. And so I have been practicing and said, Maestro, you've, if you've played every major piece for the cello, and you're one of the great musicians in the world, why are you practicing? Casal says because I want to get better. And he did.

The difference though, between the infant brain and the older brain is that while infants are constantly exploring and trying to make sense of the world, by the time we hit our 60s and 70s, and 80s, we've built up a whole lot of experience. Another myth, older adults are experiencing a time of neural decline. Level yes and no, our processing speed slows down with every decade after 40, it takes us longer to do stuff, it takes us longer to hit the brakes and the car, it takes us longer to retrieve a word. But  all that experience we've built up pretty much ensures that most 70 and 80 year olds are going to be better at solving problems, they're going to be better at seeing patterns in the world around them, which enables problem solving.

Jonathan Bastian: Yeah, that's really interesting. I find this kind of fascinating how some of the science is still developing, or you know that we're still learning these new things I was just reading a week or two ago How, how even understand metabolism is changing now and that perhaps, you know, between the ages of 20 and 60, metabolism doesn't change. I mean, there's just what seems to be these kinds of outstanding questions about neural pathways, you're talking about that. We're still figuring out as the science gets better?

Daniel Levitin: Well, you remember, the original Star Trek, they used to say space was the final frontier, I think the brain is the final frontier, it's the thing that we are just beginning to understand. And for one thing. You know, we haven't had that many older adults around to study it till the last couple of decades, you know, people used to die earlier, life expectancy has expanded by 20 years, since I've been alive. And the idea that, you know, 80 is the new 60. You look at pictures of 60 year olds for that to 40s. And, you know, ask your family, anybody who knew your grandparents, your great grandparents, if you were in your 60s in the 1940s, or even in the 1960s, you were really slowed down, and we're not expecting much. But now 60 year olds continue to work, some of them for 25 or 35 more years. And they're valued members of their company. And they have a lot to contribute to society. Our president is in his late 70s. 

The idea that we're still discovering a lot about metabolism and about neuroplasticity is due to the complexity of these things. And we're constantly inventing new tools and techniques to better understand the human body and the brain. One thing I think that's important for our KC rW listeners to recognize is that this is the way science works. Science is moving forward. We're positing new testable hypotheses, we're making observations, trying to figure things out. And what characterizes science is an attitude of open mindedness. We form an idea about the world. But we're open minded to new evidence, and we're willing to change our minds. And so in partnership with you with journalists, we try to convey the reality of that change.  And it's frustrating. We're just following where the evidence leads us. And that can cause us to re contextualize things, such as neuroplasticity, we didn't know that the brain could change. We didn't have the tools to measure it and the observations to support it.

Jonathan Bastian: So do you think it's important that as folks age they maintain a state of openness or receptivity to new ideas? Or or do you think it's more of what you said earlier, the ability to see patterns relying on experience? What do you think?

Daniel Levitin: Well, I think if we're talking about what you can do, to create a situation in which you're going to age well, successfully, meaning that you're going to be engaged with life, you're going to be a valued member of your social circles, and possibly the community at large, you're going to wake up every morning with a lot of energy. Openness is one of the key factors in being open to learning new things. The reason for that is that you know, you're talking about infants, with Dr. Gopnik, infants are constantly trying to learn about the world. That's their job, that the primary mission of the brain in the first 10 years of life is to wire itself up to whatever it experiences exists in its environment, for later use. By the time you hit your 60s. Most of us are less interested in exploring. Think back to your 20s you might have you might have not really known what kind of music you like what kind of food you like, in your 30s you might be exploring restaurants and going to a different one every chance you get by the time you're 60 the brain kind of doing neuro structural neurochemical changes becomes a bit complacent. Just want to go to the same restaurant, you always wait till because you know you'll get a good meal if you want to order the Seder you always got. And we need to push back against that complacency because new experiences, whether they're, whether it's meeting new people learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, whatever it is, that's what creates the neuroplastic change. That's what grows new neural connections. And you really want to do that in your 60s and 70s and not rely on the old ones. Because that's what will confer brain health and what we call cognitive surplus. You want to have your brain trained like an athlete is trained, you want to have extra capacity, so that if you do start to slow down, you won't notice it because you've built up all this brain strength.

Jonathan Bastian: Alison Gopnik talked about how society has changed when it comes to parenting. You know, many parents are not familiar with babies because our families are so scattered throughout the country. Didn't the same is true for the older generation. I mean, do we need to do as a society a better job of valuing older people as relevant as important still?

Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist, psychologist, musician, and Professor Emeritus at McGill University. Photo by Peter Prato.

Daniel Levitin: Well, very, I very much agree with that. The reason I wrote the book successful aging was because I wanted to start a conversation about changing the way we think about aging. In the last few years, society has addressed a number of pernicious biases that exist in our culture. I mean, we have a long way to go. But we're, we're talking about racism and gender ism, equality for people of different races, ethnic backgrounds, different gender and sexual identities. And the one thing that we haven't had before that, you know, mobility challenges, but the one bias we still hold as ageism. And nobody's talking about it, we often tend to think of older adults as irrelevant, as depressed. As in decline. And that really stands contrary to the last 20 years of scientific neuroscientific evidence. Our brains don't necessarily decline, we're not necessarily going to have memory problems. We can be active and productive. And there are so many role models, Jane Goodall 90 years old, still touring the world. Or Judy Collins 81 just last year before the lockdown a year and a half now, went on a new tour with new material, new songs she had written. I interviewed Jane Fonda for the book, who's you know, at the time a couple of years ago, had a hit television series in Grace and Frankie was really at the top of her game. And the Dalai Lama. I interviewed him and he was 85. And he just published his 125TH  book. He's writing and faster than I can read him. So I'm not just cherry picking a few examples, or trying to focus on celebrities. In every community, there are people like that contributing to the community at what we used to think of as an advanced age. They just don't hit the newspapers for it. But they're they're - contributing to churches and civic groups, helping out in hospitals visiting the sick. If they have a specialty, they may be tutoring or mentoring. Used to be if you were a surgeon, you were supposed to retire in your 60s because of shaky hands. But with the new Da Vinci techniques and robotic surgery, that's not even necessary. There's surgeons who are well into their 70s, who are doing better than their younger colleagues, because they've had so much more experience. If you ever need surgery, or an X ray, for that matter, these two medical specialties, radiology and surgery, go to the person who's older, rather than you want somebody who's done this, like 1000 times, not somebody who's done it six times and is practicing on you. 

Jonathan Bastian: What about the role of genetics in this conversation? I mean, some will say I'm predisposed to Alzheimer's that runs in the family. Do we know anything else about that, or or how that could contribute to aging or ways to kind of fend that stuff off.

Daniel Levitin: There are some rare neuro genetic diseases or cardio genetic diseases that will kill you by age 20. That's for sure. 98% chance. But having a genetic predisposition for something doesn't mean that you've been consigned to that fate. Genetics is less like a blueprint and more like a recipe. If you've ever tried to bake bread in Southern California, you know that it comes out different every time no matter how careful you are, you know, their conditions change the atmosphere, the temperature, the salinity of the water. Whatever it is, the point is that, for many of these things, including Alzheimer's, a genetic predisposition, just means that you're more likely to get it if you aren't careful. But there's a whole lot of variability that's under our control. Some of the genetic predispositions that we talk about carry only a 7% chance, very few of them carry more than a 50% chance of you getting whatever it is, whether it's cancer or Alzheimer's or heart disease. So we've got a lot of control. And getting back to your earlier point.

About openness, really the best strategy to wiggle yourself out of whatever genetic predisposition you have is to be open to new experiences, learn about what you can do, in the case of Alzheimer's, build up cognitive reserve, keep doing things. Look at Glen Campbell, one of the great musicians of our generation and while he had Alzheimer's, and he didn't know where he was, most nights he sometimes played a song two or three times in a row. But all of that cognitive reserve he has as a guitar player really allowed him to be who he was. And his wife, Kim Campbell kindly shared with me the scans of his brain after he passed away. And when he was on tour, literally half his brain was not functioning. And he was still a better guitarist than anyone on the planet. So if you're worried about Alzheimer's, I would say make sure you get a good night's sleep. Sleep is neuroprotective. There are a number of strategies for that. Eat a moderate diet, you could have it would be ridiculous to say you can never have french fries or alcohol. That's not realistic. But you know, eat a diet that's in moderation. If you're overweight, try to get your weight down, you know, but work with a doctor. 

That's another thing though, there is an obesity crisis in the United States. But there's recent research that shows that weight isn't as big a contributing factor as we once thought. So if you're 200 pounds, 250 pounds, that doesn't necessarily mean you're unhealthy. If you are maintaining an active lifestyle, and you're not too sedentary, I guess this whole business of weight is a touchy subject, of course, and another bias. But I think in all these things, checking with your doctor about diet, and sleep is a good thing. But being open to modifying them is the key. Yeah, being open to paying attention to them.

Jonathan Bastian: I love the story about Glen Campbell, thank you for sharing that. And you know, one thing that Alison Gopnik said when it came to raising kids is that parents sometimes need to kind of get out of the way and let the kid do their thing. And I wonder the opposite for adults that are taking care of, let's say seniors, and sometimes maybe there's a little bit too much hand holding, and sometimes they themselves need to kind of get out of the way to do that. Does that make sense to you?

Daniel Levitin: Well, it's a really tricky issue. So certainly, there was an old study from the 70s that still holds, which had to do with self efficacy or a sense of agency in the world. And so Stanford researchers went into an old age home, and they gave a bunch of potted plants to the residents. And on one floor, they told the residents, here's a potted plant that we're giving you, and it'll be nice for you to look at and smell and it'll cheer you up. And our staff are gonna come by every couple of days and tend to it. People on the other floor were told they had to attend to the plant where it would die. Now, this sounds like a very trivial and simple manipulation in an experiment, but the evidence was overwhelmingly strong, that the older adults who had to care for the plant, were in a better mood, they were more sociable, they had fewer health problems, because they had a sense of agency and a sense of purpose. That's why I say it's so important for older adults, if they're no longer in the workplace, they know to find some way that they can contribute in a meaningful way to, to society to to some enterprise that's meaningful to them and to others. That sense of agency and purpose is tremendously neuroprotective. That's the conversation We need to change as a society to to act more like the Japanese are more likely indigenous peoples who venerate their elders, rather than trying to shove them off to the side. 

Jonathan Bastian: It struck me what you said about learning from indigenous communities or the Japanese. I wonder if you could add a few words to what impresses you about those communities? What can we learn from them?

Daniel Levitin: Well, the Japanese had the greatest number of centenarians in the world. And the indigenous peoples of Canada in the US tend not to live to 100. Because there are other socioeconomic problems, such as education, alcoholism, and other things that are hard to dig out of. But the common point, and what I think is a great model is that in those cultures, people go to the elders for advice, they, they seek their advice, they follow their advice, they recognize what neuroscience is only just shown in the last five years, which is that the brain is a giant pattern matching device. And by the time you've seen a lot of patterns, you're in a better position to figure things out, particularly interpersonal problems. Now, I'm not saying every adult is Yoda, or a fountain of wisdom. Every older adult is not the Dalai Lama, but statistically as a group, older adults are better at problem solving, and particularly interpersonal relation problem solving. Because they've seen so much that that little experimental brain that they had, as children, gathered all this information and continued doing so for decades, so that by the time they reach a ripe old age, they've not only seen a lot, but their brains kind of without their conscious intervention have formed hypotheses about the world models of the world and drawn links and connections between things that the rest of us might not see. 

Jonathan Bastian: I love that point. I've been speaking with Daniel Levitin. He's the author of successful aging. a neuroscientist explores the power and potential of our lives. Daniel, thanks for the time. We really appreciate it. 

Daniel Levitin: Thank you.



  • Daniel Levitin - Professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and author of “The Organized Mind.”


Andrea Brody