Maintaining mental agility with age

Neuroscience Says Maintaining Lifelong Intelligence, Focus, and Mental Agility Comes Down to the Rule of 3

Your brain naturally ‘rewires’ itself as you age. But it doesn’t have to, at least not as quickly.


Neuroscience Says Maintaining Lifelong Intelligence, Focus, and Mental Agility Comes Down to the Rule of 3
Illustration: Getty Images

We all thought Derek (not his real name, for reasons that will soon be obvious) had gotten stuck in his ways: too rigid, too conventional, too slow to act on new ideas. We liked him as a person. But as a supervisor? Maybe a little past his sell-by date.

Hold that thought.

Where success is concerned, luck matters: Right place. Right time. Right person, idea, market, or audience. Problem is, you can’t control luck.

But you can control how smart you are. You can improve your judgment. Your decision-making skills. Your ability to learn quickly, and retain and use what you’ve learned.

To a point, that is.

A systematic review of dozens of studies published this year in Psychophysiology found that brain connectivity changes dramatically over time.

Somewhere around the time we turn 40, our brains begin to undergo what neurologists call a radical rewiring: What were partitioned networks, with each cognitive domain responsible for specialized processing, steadily become more integrated. (In simple terms, different parts of your brain handle different processes; as you age, the number of separate domains declines.)

The good news? Because of that generalization, vocabulary and general knowledge tend to increase, possibly because those neural networks have become more integrated. But the same generalization negatively impacts call executive function and attention: Working memory, fluid intelligence, reasoning, problem-solving, the ability to think abstractly, etc.

As the researchers write:

During the early years of life, there is a rapid organization of functional brain networks. A further refinement of the functional networks then takes place until around the third and fourth decade of life.

Older adults tend to show less flexible thinking, such as forming new concepts and abstract thinking, lower response inhibition, as well as lower verbal and numeric reasoning.

Yeah, great.

Especially for Derek. If he truly had slowed down and become less mentally flexible and sharp (it’s very possible we were just being judgmental jerks), several factors could have exacerbated the problem.

While genetics matter, considerable research shows the big three — diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle — can dramatically slow and even put off the effect of network consolidation and generalization. 

Yep: The big three.

Don Ohlmeyer once said, “The answer to all your questions is money.”

But the better line might be, “The answer to all your questions is diet, exercise, and lifestyle,” especially where staying intelligent, sharp, and mentally agile is concerned. 

Because who you will someday be is the result of what you do today — and every day.

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