February 8, 2015

How we can age vitally

The knowledge about how we can age vitally grows. Of course, this is not completely under our control but we can increase its chance. 

In my book Progressiegericht werken I conjecture that we can make meaningful progress into old age. I think that we can do a number of things which can increase the chance of ageing vitally. In other words, that we can keep a relatively clear and sharp mind, that we can stay relatively physically fit, and the we can keep enjoying ourselves and stay motivated. If my conjecture turns out to be right that will be very nice. Then, we will not only have been able to add 10 years, on average to our lives, over the last 50 years. We also will be ale to use these years well and live relatively happily.

Previously, I have mentioned several ways to increase the chance of a vital old age. Daily physical activity is one of the most important things that you can do to keep your body and mind fit. If you don't remain physically active, you not only increase your chance of a faster physical decay but also of a faster mental decay (read more, here).

A second thing to mention is the growth mindset. Believing that growth is possible, even at an old age, is a prerequisite to doing the things which lead to growth. If you believe that old people are no longer capable of learning difficult things, you will not put much effort into learning and you will not learn much and retrograde faster. If you do believe that learning is possible at an old age you will believe that is make sense to put effort into learning. And is there any evidence that old people can still learn difficult things? Indeed, there is. In the article Neuroplasticity in the elderly, you can read about a study in which old people learned a visual task as well as young people. Interesting was that in young people this learning mainly led to changes in their grey matter (their neurons) while in old people it mainly led to changes in their white matter (their myelin, which is the stuff which wraps around neurons and insulates them, thereby making transmission of electrical signals go much faster).

Thus, old people can keep on learning. And it is healthy if they do. By keeping on challenging yourself by doing new and hard things (like learning a new language) you keep your mind sharp and vital. And the combination of daily physical activity and learning new things is especially powerful (read more about this, here).

I want to mention another thing which may help to age vitally. A new study suggests that meditation can slow down the decay of grey matter, the neurons, in the brain. Eileen Luders and her colleagues (Luders et al., 2015) demonstrated that in old people who had meditated for many years there was significantly slower decay of grey matter than in old people who hadn't. In previous articles I have mentioned evidence for various benefits of (mindfulness-) meditation (here and here). At the same time, I have pointed out (here) that our knowledge about how (mindfulness-) meditation works is relatively limited and that we have to keep a skeptical inquisitive mind.

Eventually we will all die. That is a fact. But what we do in the meantime matters. 

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