Is it true that we automatically become more forgetful as we age? I’ve always believed this to be true, I watched it happen to my parents and my grandparents. But then I heard an interview with Dr Michael Merzenich from the University of California where he states that: “The brain continues to make new neurons throughout life in response to mental activity.”
That got me thinking – maybe it was lack of stimulation that caused the older generation around me to become more forgetful. My parents watched TV every evening when they retired. They didn’t extend themselves with new challenges because they believed they didn’t have to, they were retired and that meant it was time to relax, slow down, take it easy. They accepted that the brain they had was never going to change and in fact believed it would only deteriorate. As they became more and more forgetful, I remember that they would joke about the beginnings of Alzheimer’s and dementia as if these were a fait accompli, a foregone conclusion over which they had no control.
Dr Merzenich goes on to say, “research has shown that watching TV has a major impact on our brain chemistry. The longer we watch the television screen the easier the brain skips into a receptive, passive mode, meaning that messages are streamed into the brain without any participation from the individual.” Sounds to me, like we’re being doped! Dr Merzenich’s message is clear when it comes to the brain: use it or lose it.
“The basic concept is simple,” he says, “the brain changes physically, functionally and chemically as you acquire any ability or skill. You know this instinctively. Something must be changing as your ability improves or as new abilities emerge. You are actually re-modelling your brain machinery by practicing the skill: those physical changes account for your learning. Actually what the brain is doing is changing its local wiring changing the details of how the machinery controlling your behaviour is connected. It’s also changing itself in other physical, chemical and functional ways. Collectively those changes account for the improvement or acquisition of any human ability.” Wow!
So let me ask you a question – is there something you are passionate about but never seem to have the time to do? Well, why not decide today to make the time by swapping out some TV programs? Enjoy the sense of reward you feel when completing something that holds your attention and focus, something you learned from, something concrete to show for your time, something you are proud of.
After hearing this interview, I decided to limit my time watching TV to only a couple of hours a week and this has allowed me to sew a quilt, write an eBook, paint an abstract picture on canvas for our spare bedroom and read classics that I have been promising to myself for years. Even more positive is the fact that I know my brain is working and growing, so I won’t automatically becoming more forgetful as I age.