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Teaching an Old Brain New Tricks (and Kicks)

There is no such thing as being too old to train your brain.

"An older head can't be put on younger shoulders." --Adam West as Batman from the ABC series “Batman” in Episode “Marsha’s Scheme of Diamonds”, 1967.

Right now while you read this you are aging. Biological aging is a steady, continual process which begins pretty much as soon as life has begun. When we think of aging we think of getting older. And when we think of getting older we often think of things we can’t do as well as we used to do when we were “younger”.

As we age, real and perceived limits often get placed on our abilities and capacities. Like the title I used for this post—a riff on that age-old idiom “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Part of that saying seems real enough. We all know there is a decline in function that occurs after a certain age. The term “senescence” includes this idea and for us humans it sets in after about age 30. The figure in this post (taken from the chapter “The Aging Avenger—Could the Caped Crusader Become the Caped Codger?” in “Becoming Batman”) shows examples of senescence in the nervous (blue line) and cardiovascular (red line) systems.

Functional decline with aging.

The overall effect this has on our ability to function is shown by the (steadily declining) green line. Well, this figure seems to show that maybe we better not try and teach an old dog new tricks because everything is just dropping off to the right…but maybe not. While superheroes like Batman need to be a bit more careful because of occupational hazards (the reason for the 55 y old maximum retirement age in the figure), there is tremendous adaptive plasticity across multiple domains in your body. Most importantly in the nervous system—your brain and spinal cord.

Despite the unavoidable changes that occur in the nervous system with aging, an active lifestyle can help mitigate the overall impact of these changes. Keeping active across the lifespan provides the stimulus to maintain muscle mass and motor skills we need. And they are needed for things like kicking up your heels dancing and kicking up your heels for kicking.

Which brings us to a couple of really neat recent training studies done in “older adults” and using interventions in dance and martial arts.

First, let’s dance. (Please hum David Bowie’s classic song from 1983 to yourself while you read on.) Jan-Christoph Kattenstroth and colleagues at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany had healthy elderly (average age 68 y) women take part in a 1 hour dance class, one time each week for 6 months. The dance class consisted of 20 minutes warm up followed by 40 minutes of dance moves that could be performed without a partner.

Before and after the dance intervention the researchers in Bochum measured, well, a lot of stuff ranging from psychological factors all the way to cardiovascular fitness. Guess what? They found that, using their older brains, the study participants had improved reaction times, postural control, tactile ability, overall motor performance, and overall subjective feeling. A very important part was that those who started off at the lower end of ability still showed large gains.

Now let’s kick it up a notch. (Please imagine Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) saying “wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid from 1984.) We go back to Germany again for this research. This time to the University of Regensburg and the work of Petra Jansen and Katharina Dahmen-Zimmer. These scientists were interested in how older adults (age range 67-93 y) would respond to cognitive (inductive thinking ability), motor (stretching and mobilizing), or karate (self-defense, partner work, and kata) training.

All the study participants then took part in 20 one hour training sessions over a 3 to 6 month period. Before and after training measurements were made of cognitive ability and emotional well-being. Only the karate group (average age 74 y) had a significant improvement in well-being (measured as in improvement on a depression scale). The depression score for the control group went up and for the other 2 training groups stayed the same.

I will also mention that the strength training intervention study in stroke conducted in my lab recently (and summarized in the last post “1894: A Story of Brain Plasticity”) included participants aged 26-81 (on average 58 y). Clearly older brains can learn new dance tricks and karate kicks. A key issue is getting those brains interested in doing something new!

Here’s a direct quote from the end of the Jansen and Dahmen-Zimmer paper. They wrote that their study “…shows that “unusual” sports can enhance the quality of life and that the “impossible” might be “possible”, even in old age…” This resonates with the findings from the dance intervention, and strongly show that even moderate amounts of physical activity when included in a meaningful context (e.g. dance, martial arts) can help offset the declines associated with aging.

Neuroplasticity awaits in our brains at any age. While it might not be an older head on younger shoulders as in the Adam West quote at the beginning of this post, our potential is ready to be called into action at any age.

© E. Paul Zehr (2013)

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