Think Your Brain Young By Giving Aging a Karate Chop

A post to celebrate the UN International Day of Older Persons

Posted Oct 01, 2018

I’ve been thinking a lot about age and aging lately. Turning 50 will do that to you--or maybe for you. And that’s not a bad thing. Reflection and thinking about limitations and approach to life will do that to you. All that despite the hard limit I identified in Becoming Batman 10 years ago when musing about whether the Caped Crusader could avoid becoming the Caped Codger.

I said Bruce Wayne really ought to hang up the cape at 55. But just because I said Bruce shouldn’t be out on the streets as the Bat doesn’t mean he couldn’t continue to be a superhero doing superhuman things in his daily life for as long as he lived. Just stay off the rooftops.

Martial arts are what got me into science and, since I began training just over 35 years ago, I have never stopped. Yes, injuries and life have altered what “training” actually means for me but the mental approach to training and steady self-improvement has remained regardless. Without hyperbole, martial arts training and the physical and mental benefits arising has been the single most influential factor in my life. It has been my way out of many hard places and even a literal lifeline in some dark places that events in my life have taken me.

In a 2016 study published in Aging and Clinical Experimental Research, Gerald Pliske and his German colleagues at Otto-von-Guericke University found that 5 months of karate forms practice and general fitness training performed twice each week in 60-minute sessions improved dual-task performance and walking gait in men and women aged 62-86 years. A key outcome here was that dual-task performance (for example, talking while walking) was enhanced in all activity groups. A decrement of dual-task performance can be a predictor of fall risk in aging and thus interventions that enhance performance are useful.

It's clear that doing fitness training of any kind is obviously helpful. In my view, the added benefit of martial arts training is it's "functional fitness". You learn real-world functional skills--like how to move out of the way, how to fall, how to defuse aggression by body posture--that enhance your sense of agency and provide confidence.

Changes in brain function associated with such training have been shown. Meng-Tien Wu and colleagues in Taiwan published a study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience revealing that three 60 minute sessions of T’ai Chi applied over 12 weeks could improve greater prefrontal cortex activation. These activation changes were related to improved physical function and reduced errors in switching between motor tasks. In other words, martial arts training appears to improve mental capacity for flexible motor performance.

But sometimes our thinking limits us. Martial arts are for younger people, say many. I’ve personally heard that so many times in my own life. This, despite the very large number of martial arts teachers and practitioners in their 70s and 80s that I know personally. Many of them would be very reluctant to face in a real confrontation such are their physical and mental skills. They continued to use it so they didn’t lose as much as they could have.

An interesting finding is that there may be some reciprocity between brain age and real age and that old (sorry pun totally intended) adage about “you’re only as old as you think you are”. Seyul Kwak and colleagues at Yonsei University in South Korea published a 2018 paper “Feeling How Old I Am” in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. They used questionnaires and survey tools to assess how folks aged 59-84 years thought of their own “subjective” age and compared this to assessments of brain gray matter volume magnetic resonance imaging to assess physical brain age. In other words, to examine a link between the actual personal and subjective experience of aging with neurophysiology.

The stunning outcome of this work was that elderly folks who perceived themselves as younger than their “real” biological age had larger gray matter volumes and also a younger predicted age from brain imaging. While you cannot, of course, think yourself young, maintaining a younger subjective age based on perceptions of and applications of our activities may lead to a lifestyle of physical and mental activity that can lead to a healthier brain.

A 2018 study by Barbara Jefferis and her colleagues at University College London, Harvard, St. George’s University, and Bristol University in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that in men aged 71-90 years the total volume of activity was the key health variable. This means, in simple terms, every bit really does count. And you can count every bit at every age.

Keiko Fukuda began her judo training in the late 1920s and was the highest ranking female judo practitioner in history and the last surviving student of the founder of the art, Kano Jigoro. In July 2011 at 97 years old, she was promoted to 10th dan in the art of judo--the highest level possible. She continued to teach her art in San Francisco Bay area until her death in 2013 at the age of 99. I was so impressed by her amazing life and martial arts career that I had her as a key inspirational figure for empowerment in my hybrid book “Project Superhero”.

Coming back to where we started, I strongly recommend that when Bruce Wayne retires from being Batman (and that should have been a while ago--his original comic book debut was in 1939!), he continues his active lifestyle which includes daily martial arts practice. The message is: do what you can, but always do something. It really does matter and it matters more and more as we get older.

Properly applied and with effective and compassionate guidance from a sincere martial mentor, training in many arts can greatly enhance psychological and physical health through functional fitness across the lifespan. And maybe give you a feeling of being younger too. Don’t let age limit you--maybe your brain really can be as young as you think. To paraphrase the words of Bob Dylan, while you were older then you can be younger than that now.

© E. Paul Zehr (2018)