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Curiosity May Preserve Brain Health, Staving Off Neurodegenerative Diseases Like Alzheimer’s

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Aug 2, 2015   By Henry Emmons, MD and David Alter, PhD

We have all heard that curiosity “killed the cat.” But is curiosity really bad for our health? Cats may be able to risk losing a life or two, as they’re said to have nine, but this isn’t the case for us humans. We have to make the best of the only life we have. The juggernaut of age-related diseases, with Alzheimer’s disease topping the list, represents a major challenge facing the 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day for the next 20 years. Thankfully, cultivating curiosity is among a handful of accessible practices shown to preserve mental functioning well beyond the age that mental decline was presumed to be inevitable. Research efforts backed by billions of research dollars are gradually progressing in their quest to slow or reverse Alzheimer’s disease and other aging-related diseases. But aging Americans aren’t content awaiting the arrival of brain deterioration just to learn how to slow it from advancing further. They are interested in remaining vital throughout the second half of their lives. Are you curious how?

Carl Jung, the great 20th century miner of the mind said, “[The] afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only, its meaning and purpose are different.” He was right. The demands of the afternoon of life (older age) are different than those of the morning. Modern neuroscience, when combined with ageless practices, shows just how life’s afternoon can be spent to preserve a youthful brain well into life’s second half. Long-term brain health has been shown to be strongly influenced by intentional choices made by a well-tuned and attentive mind. Without the capacity to focus and sustain attention, little can be accomplished, including maintaining a youthful brain.

A review of the literature on activities that support brain vitality fall into three overlapping and mutually reinforcing categories:

  • Practices that support the physical body (movement, nutrition, and sleep)
  • Polishing the cognitive lenses through which we view our future and sharpen our minds (curiosity, flexibility, and optimism)
  • Activities that deepen our social network through accessing our deepest sense of mission and purpose (empathy, social connectedness, and living our lives “authentically”)

While the importance of movement, nutrition, and sleep to overall health has long been recognized, emerging evidence in neuroscience clearly highlights how it is also central to maintaining a healthy brain into older adulthood. Less well-known is that curiosity, flexibility, and optimism are a triad of cognitive lenses with an equally potent impact on long-term brain health. Each lens builds on and supports the others. A curious mind isn’t satisfied with the status quo. A curious mind seeks novelty. Going beyond what is known to discover or create something new and different is the hallmark of a curious mind.

curiousity

Exploring ideas, people, and places in new ways exposes the brain to a continuous stream of the unfamiliar and the unexpected. This results in a brain that is constantly bathed in surprise, allowing it to tap into its neuroplastic potential to rewire, and broadening its ability to respond to life with expanded flexibility. The ability to respond to the unexpected with flexible courage generates stress resilience and reduced anxiety. Curiosity and flexibility encourage the brain to formulate a more optimistic attitude about the unknown, and to access the courage necessary to engage in life’s opportunities and challenges on your own terms with deeper trust and enduring faith. Optimism is what permits us to persist in our commitments in spite of near-term frustrations and setbacks. An optimistic brain isn’t a self-deluding brain. Instead, when optimism is exercised, we actually become more realistic, more grounded, and intimately engaged in the nuances of daily life. We recognize “what is now ” but remain open that “what is” can be changed in positive and helpful ways moving forward. These core brain-building skills are a powerful buffer against daily stress, and the more potentially ravaging effects of depression and runaway anxiety. From the perspective of an aging but still youthful brain, these well-honed practices muster the perseverance to curiously, flexibly, and optimistically keep exploring the possible even when simple and short-sighted logic might argue otherwise.

There is another question to ask, and perhaps it’s the most important question to consider when exploring how to maintain a youthful brain into older age: Toward what end are we laboring to maintain a healthy brain?

Silly question? Not really. When you look at the enormous energy, money, and industry that is poured into efforts to preserve youth forever, it is apparent that for many of us, the goal is not to age well — it is to not age at all!

Success in maintaining a youthful brain doesn’t equate to being 20 again. Instead, it entails success at building a specialized, brain-based time machine. A vital brain doesn’t mean we turn the clock back in time. This machine helps us become “timeless” by making our lives matter so that our legacy is one that survives us and that leaves the world better than when we came into it. As Jung said, the purpose of the afternoon of life differs from the morning’s purpose. Maintenance of a youthful brain and a vital mind is what enables the afternoon’s purpose to be achieved. Nigerian poet Ben Okri captured that purpose when he said, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering.” That directive is not for the faint of heart. But, then, living a full and meaningful life isn’t either. By forging a life path that regularly and consistently attends to nourishing the body and mind, and developing an awakened heart, the odds that life’s rolling of the dice comes up in our favor is maximized.

Source: Henry Emmons, MD and David Alter, PhD, Authors of Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom . Simon & Schuster, September 2015. 

Henry Emmons, MD,  is a psychiatrist who integrates mind-body and natural therapies, mindfulness, and compassion practices into his clinical work. He is the author of three previous books: The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and The Chemistry of Joy Workbook. He is also a popular speaker, workshop presenter and retreat leader for both health care professionals and the general public.

David Alter, PhD,  is a clinical psychologist whose 30-year practice combines mind-body medicine, strategic therapeutic interventions, and clinical hypnosis to address the physical, mental, and relationship-based concerns of his clients. He integrates health psychology, neuropsychology, and clinical hypnosis to bring a holistic perspective to his clinical work. He conducts his practice at Partners in Healing, the center for holistic health that he co-founded, and the Institute for Brain-Behavior Integration, which he founded to study and treat issues involving brain health.

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