Special Issues: Keeping Your Brain Healthy At Any Age
By Tiffany Eckert
Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION
for photos and more information.
The idea that learning can and should be a lifelong endeavor is at the root of a growing trend—continuing education. It’s been estimated that by 2010, more than 20 percent of the population will be over 65. A lot of those mature adults have already made the commitment to keep their brains active for the long haul. For our Special Issues Series on Education, KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert reports.
Meet brother and sister, Klaus and Beata Galda.
Klaus Galda: “Learning to me is just something like living and breathing. It’s just something you keep doing every day. It’s very important and I think it’s also one of the things that does keep you young…”
Beata Galda: “…I just love to learn new things so I’m always excited to try something I haven’t tried before and to learn something I don’t know anything about.”
The Galda siblings have already reached what many might consider the pinnacle of education. Beata finished law school. Klaus holds a Masters in philosophy.
Klaus Galda: “If I had been able to afford it, I think I would have been a student for my whole life. That was actually my favorite mode of living…”
Beata Galda: “I always felt that I didn’t have enough time to learn everything I wanted to learn. So I felt bad that I didn’t have more time to spend reading and learning and going to classes.
Klaus and Beata are actively seeking out new ways to stimulate their brains. Klaus says he’s no expert on the subject, but he believes that at 66, the more he uses it, the better his brain will continue to function.
Klaus Galda: “Lately they’ve been doing a lot of hard science on that and just through nuclear magnetic resonance and whatever—they’ve seen areas of the brain that actually had been sort of dying will start to regenerate.”
Eugene psychologist Peter Moulton is an expert on the aging brain. He wrote the book “Brain Agility.” And created a seven week program with cognitive exercises for anyone looking to jump start the regenerative process. He gives a short lesson in neurology.
Peter Moulton: “The neuron is the basic cell in the brain that’s involved in information processing. We used to think that as we aged, that the decline in cognitive functioning was due to loss of neurons.”
Not so, says Dr. Moulton. Decline is caused by a loss of dendrites----the interconnections among neurons. (They receive the signals upon which all thinking depends.)
Peter Moulton: “The important thing is that neurons can also GROW new dendrites. And, mental activity, continued learning has been shown to form new dendrites.”
There are only a few ways to study the brain. One is through brain imaging- MRIs and CAT-scans--another way is at a functional level with standardized tests, for example. And a lot’s been done with animal brains…
But Dr. Moulton says probably the best way is to…
Peter Moulton: “…actually take it apart and look at it. Now, not many people are willing to have that happen.” Laugh.
One group of women did. In 1986, the school sisters of Notre Dame participated in a study that continues to this day. The nuns of this order range in age from 75 to 106 years old and most of them were teachers.
The “Nuns Study” involves annual memory and cognitive assessments. And--- all 678 of the sisters agreed to donate their brains.
Peter Moulton: “Some of the brains have shown the plaques and the neuro-fibulary tangles that are commonly associated with Alzheimer’s, but these are in individuals that were bright and functional until they died.”
In other words, even though some of the nun’s brains looked like they had the disease, they didn’t exhibit any of the symptoms -- activity of the brain overcame the disease.
The study found that people who challenge themselves intellectually can apparently delay or prevent the onset of many brain diseases.
This is the kind of information that prompts seniors to join “OLLI” --the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute-- through the University of Oregon.
Ruth Heller: “When you’re working with adults 55 and older-- people have experiences. They come to the table with experiences and opinions and things they can share with others.”
That’s Ruth Heller, the U of O Continuing Ed Program Director. She says programs like OLLI can fill a void in a senior’s life.
Ruth Heller: “When people lose their partner, this gives them a place to continue to have friends, to have a connection, and I think to have more than superficial conversation.”
OLLI got its start in Eugene in 1993 with a grant from Bay Area philanthropist Bernard Osher. At 81 years old, Mr. Osher acts as an example to other members—last year, he started learning to play the piano—one of his lifetime goals.
The program has 366 members over the age of 50.
Course topics run the gamut…from international relations to interpretive play reading.
At a weekly conversational Spanish class, nine mature men and women sit around a table as Ralph Lafferty, or Raphael as he’s called in here, shares a very old copy of Don Quixote.
Now, here’s something to consider: Raphael started learning Spanish in 1940. Almost 70 years later, he’s still at it.
Here’s classmates Eddie L. Madison Jr. and Barbara Mondall
Barbara Mondall: “I am going to be traveling to Mexico this coming year so I need to brush up.”
Eddie L. Madison Jr.: “I’m just trying to recall what I learned many decades ago. Laugh. Yea, I’m a big Don Quixote fan.”
Another popular educational program for seniors in Lane County is oasis. Each year, 8,500 older adults take advantage of 300 classes in the arts, humanities, health education and technology.
Oasis also hosts conferences on age-related topics. Director Elizabeth Scholze-Schmidt took time out during an event called “Brain Storm” to describe their senior tutoring program.
Elizabeth Scholze-Schmidt: “To have the benefit of having somebody whose 60 or 70 years old, who went through life before remote control. Who went though living on a farm where they actually went out and pumped the water. These are things that are not obsolete.”
The award-winning program brought Doreen McGregor together with 1st through 3rd graders at Goshen School.
Doreen McGregor: “I see these children as they develop as they grow as they were struggling readers to see what terrific spots they’re in today. One little girl I had she was so shy, a difficult time adjusting…now she went on to be a student body officer.
McGregor says her tutoring is a two-way street--she learns from her students too.
Doreen McGregor: “They have the advantages with the technology so seeing what they’re learning, you bet it’s good for my brain.”
Dr. Moulton says what’s good for McGegor’s brain is really called “Brain Based Learning” and it’s changing the design of educational systems for all ages.
Peter Moulton: “What we’ve been learning, with older adults primarily, on how their brains can develop as they continue to learn and how they improve, is now going into education as a whole.”
In the end, Dr. Moulton says it’s about keeping our brains agile. The more curious and interested we stay, the more neural inter-connections our brains will make.
Peter Moulton: “Aging requires flexibility, positive outlook and a sense of humor…”
Klaus Galda: “Don’t squander those neurons.” laugh
For KLCC, I’m Tiffany Eckert.
Copyright 2009 KLCC.
Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION
for photos and more information.