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How to keep your brain young

20 March 2012 ( 22 June 2018 )

You can’t do much about the years rolling by, but you needn’t be ‘elderly’ in your mind: all you need is a different outlook.

Grandmother and granddaughter hula-hopping in the sun
Have fun and be creative to maintain a young brain

Ageing. There’s a lot of it about – and most of us at some time start to think seriously about what getting older means for us. Often, the question we ask is: ‘How can I be a young older person?’

Will anti-ageing creams help? Is Sudoku a good idea? Swimming? Plastic surgery? Well, perhaps not plastic surgery, but anything that makes you feel better about yourself is worth considering. The hard truth, however, is that there are only two areas where you can really make a difference. One is your Body Age, which can vary 15 years either way from your actual age, and is the direct result of how you have treated – and are treating – your body in terms of diet, habits and exercise.

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The Brain Age

The other is your Brain Age. Your Brain Age is the age of your mindset – in other words, how you think about things and interpret the world around you. And here’s the point: your brain’s age can be vastly different from your actual age. Someone in very late years can have a ‘forever young’ mindset, and most of us know a young person whom we label old before their time.

Put simply, you can have an Old Brain or a Young Brain. If you allow yourself to develop an Old Brain you tend to be anxious, grumpy, risk-averse and negative. You believe you are right and everyone else is wrong – that everything was better in the past. Not true, of course, but a comforting mindset if you have no intention of coming to terms with changes in society.

If, on the other hand, you keep a Young Brain you are open, creative, full of fun, enthusiastic, optimistic and have a taste for mischief. The point is that most of us can choose how we think. Crucially, your age is not a number – it’s a state of mind.

Clearly, there are exceptions. Suffering from bad health or other misfortune causes justifiable unhappiness. Developing a Young-Brain mindset won’t be possible in all cases. But for many, changing our mindset is just a matter of choice.

So why choose a Young Brain?

There are three persuasive reasons.

The first rationale is to get back what you have lost. We were all young once and most of us had Young Brain attributes. In many ways, we were better at living our lives when we were younger: we were more adventurous, more fun-loving and made friends more easily. If, today, we find ourselves being too conservative or even lonely, one thing that will certainly help us is to try to regain our Young Brain.

Second reason: Old-Brain thinking can put you outside mainstream society. Social values evolve rapidly. For example, 20 years ago, it was possible to make light of women as second-class citizens. Now people who talk in this way are seen as out of touch.

Placed in the context of increased life expectancies, being out of step sets you apart: possibly facing decades of isolation, frustration and anger.

Finally, your mentality affects your relationships. How can you continue to relate to your children and grandchildren if you mutate into a grumpy old man or woman?

Don’t expect young people to change to your way of thinking. They are busy shaping society for the new challenges of our age, like it or not. But by regaining your Young Brain, you can start to relate, relax and find happiness again.

Knowing mindsets are important is a first step towards a richer life. The next step is to assess how old your brain is today.

The best guide for this is a simple Brain Age Test*. However, the way you respond to the following three situations will give you an inkling of how old your mindset has become.

1. Someone challenges your opinion

Do you ever think: ‘What if I were wrong about this?’ Not doing so is a sure indicator of an Old Brain.

2. A difficult situation repeatedly arises

Do you ever say: ‘Is there a different or better way to deal with this situation?’ If you never do so, your Old Brain has taken over.

3. Faced with a free choice

If you're in a restaurant meal, do you choose the same thing every time?

Being closed to change is Old-Brain thinking

If your answers suggest you have an Old-Brain mindset, how do you go about replacing this? Through social research, we’ve derived the six ‘Wisdoms of Youth’ that we believe can transform the way you live and the richness you get from life.

The Six Wisdoms of Youth

  1. Being open to others
  2. Being open to change
  3. Having enlightened selfishness
  4. Being always ‘switched on’
  5. Having fun
  6. Being creative

Let’s just touch on three of these essential Wisdoms:

1. Being open to others.

This Wisdom is about extending your social gene pool – being open to people, so that you have a growing network of friends and associates, rather than a diminishing one. Finding friends can be hard, but start with friends of friends or by joining new associations.

Using the internet is not for everyone but is clearly a success among most people who use social media for networking. However you do it, you should have two aims. Add at least one new friend a month! And introduce fresh blood from different demographics. For example, ask yourself, how old is my youngest friend? My oldest friend? Then push that age range. Finally, start going to busy places, joining in with the crowd. Rediscover the joys of shared emotions and ‘feeling part of it’.

2. Being open to change.

When life moved slowly and changed little, being inflexible and stubborn did not matter. But these days, accelerated change means that being able to navigate through life is the only way to remain connected and interested.

Change, of course, is scary because it means leaving something known behind and taking a risk with something new. To overcome this fear, start with altering little things and get into the habit of doing things differently. Change where you sit in the lounge. Get an electric toothbrush. Buy a vegetable you’ve never tried before. Then go on to the bigger things in life. One year you might spend Christmas with friends rather than family. Mix things up. Make them exciting. Get life fizzing again.

3. Enlightened selfishness.

Giving to others brings goodness to our lives, but occasionally we need to focus on our own learning and growth in order to be more effective at giving. Part of this personal learning is about giving ourselves permission to explore – and also to make mistakes.

Ensure that errors and setbacks (even serious ones) are learning experiences – so a ‘failure’ is seen as a growth opportunity rather than a personal flaw. Work on how you interpret mishaps and focus on how far you have moved forwards.

The Wisdom of Experience

Of course, life teaches us lessons and judgment along the way – about morality, about realism, about the value of families and so forth. This of course is what we know as maturity, and this Wisdom is a profoundly useful compass. Fusing experience with the Wisdoms of Youth offers your best chance of a revitalised, meaningful life and will bring you fresh joy and interest along the way.

It is possible to liberate yourself from mindsets that limit your prospects, and rejuvenate the way you view the world and interact with it. You will discover a fuller, richer life, fill your later years with relevance and find new, interesting, nourishing friends.

Because you really can be as young as you think. Go for it – and good luck!

Mini Brain Age Test

Someone asks ‘How are you?’ How do you respond? If you have a Young Brain, you will say ‘Fine’ and change the subject to something more interesting. Old Brains, on the other hand, will respond with a litany of hospital appointments, ailments and assorted minor disasters.

The French have a phrase, ‘moins on en parle, moins on en souffre’ that means ‘the less you talk about it, the less you suffer from it’. Wisdom indeed.

* Tim Drake and Chris Middleton, You Can Be as Young as You Think (Pearson, £10.99). The Brain Age Test is also available as a free iPhone app

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.