Changing our approach to ageing to build a stronger economy
Our approach to ageing needs to change if we are to create a sustainable society that is economically stronger. We live in challenging times where the best protection is a brain that can easily and safely take advantage of the changes around us. Unfortunately, our ageing brains do not do that automatically – we need to work on it ourselves.
Do you think you are old?
How old are you? Chances are that unless you are over 65 you are unlikely to feel old. However, your brain is ageing from middle age. When you reach 70, do you want comfort more than respect? Many of us do, falling into safe and comfortable lives that are encouraged by all aspects of society around us. For those who can afford it, retirement villages offer ways to be with friends and have an ‘easy life that you deserve’. Relatives tell you to ‘take it easy, after all you aren’t as young as you were’ and even doctors tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s just old age’. This influences our approach to aging and even though some individuals may be enjoying that ‘rest’ I believe it is causing society a level of complacency that we cannot afford.
Better Brain Building Impacts the Economy Substantially
Make no mistake, brain health and improvement is a social and economic problem. Even if you are not worried about your own mental state, consider the impact it will have on the rest of society. As you may know, mental decline is a major risk for the country and unless we take action we are on course for perfect storm of dementia over the next two decades. At present approximately one in 20 of us will have some form of dementia over the age of 65. If you live to be among the oldest old, over 80, you currently have a 1 in five chance of being demented. Bear in mind that not only is there a ‘bulge’ of over 65s, but due to advances in medical science, the oldest old are the fastest growing cohort in most first world countries. We are all growing older.
Are you part of the problem or the solution?
At present, greater numbers of old people correlate with statistically higher levels of dementia and we support this older group financially and socially. There is an economic figure called the dependency ratio which puts this into perspective. Over the past few years, although the figure varies from country to country, this ratio has been estimated to be on average about 50 – 50. That is about fifty per cent of people are being supported (financially and socially) by the other fifty per cent. Dependents include young people as well as disabled and older, but because of the impact of the ageing population, over the next twenty years this ratio is expected to rise to 70 – 30. That is, seventy per cent of the population will be supported by thirty per cent. Young and disabled people deserve to be supported by those of us who are able.
Choose to contribute
However, unlike young and disabled people, many over 65 can consider the choice to contribute or become part of the problem. Economically, politically and socially the strain is already starting to show; parents are not only supporting their children, but also their own elderly parents; governments are taking measures to hold back pension entitlements as they threaten to bankrupt the country. Worse still, we are losing the potential contribution of wisdom from thousands of older people.
The Challenge of Brain Building
The reality is that most of us can build better brains as we age. Better is the important word. We can’t all be geniuses – but we can contribute or at least be self-sufficient as we age. We can avoid or postpone effects of dementia and even develop wisdom which is a very useful trait! Scientific research over the past few years shows that we can change our own brain throughout life. This ability to change, called neuroplasticity, is the key to having a better brain as we age. Brain development happens automatically in young children, the experts call this neuro plasticity (the natural ability of our brain to adapt to circumstances around us). Our brains are designed to learn and until the age of 30, our changeable (plastic) brain only needs to be exposed to external experiences and it creates itself.
Forty and Beyond
I was slightly dismayed to from learn Michael Menzevich (the acclaimed father of neuro plasticity) that at age 30 we are at the height of our automatic physical brain capability. That is, the framework for understanding the world is developed and the desire to learn more becomes diminished. Despite this the peak of capability may not be reached until around 40 because there is a long ‘tail’ of retained capacity which combines with more experience. Our brains flourish but after that, without extra effort, essentially it is all downhill!
Accept a new Challenge
Don’t worry! This is the point at which effort, persistence and curiosity start to make a huge difference to the person who will later reach 80. In short, left to its own devices, our brain will wither if we do not take control and develop it. Some people (like Einstein) continue without any ‘brain training’ through their insatiable curiosity which drives them into new areas of knowledge and experience until they die. For those of us who are not as naturally curious, recent research shows that all of us can simulate this state of a youthful and strong mind through some simple activities and easy changes in lifestyle.
I was relieved to learn (from Menzevich and others) that our brain is perfectly capable of changing and developing all though our life – not just before 30 or 40.Those who continue to build a better brain after 30 can be examples of wisdom and genius. This is the combination of experience, ethics and altruism which comes with age combined with a faster, flexible and focused (more youthful) brain capability. The problem is – we need to take action and make an effort! ‘Comfortable’ is attractive but causes brain fade and ‘difficult’ is unattractive but creates strength. How do we convince people to take the harder road ahead?
Shift from the bottom to the top of the Cliff
Delaying pension payments is reactive – adding more dementia units is too – it is putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. I want to know why we aren’t putting more effort in to prevention of dementia by encouraging people to develop their brains; development of existing potential for wisdom in thousands of aging people. Then we could see this risk of an aging society as its greatest potential.
Preventing or delay dementia and harnessing the wisdom of more elders, we can change the future of society. However, as long as we accept that the brain automatically declines with age we are lost.
I have personal experience to share
How do I know this and why do I care? In 2007 I had a brain tumour removed which left me with brain damage. Friends wanted me to accept a lesser and more comfortable life. However, I read Norman Doidge’s book ‘the brain that changes itself’ and I believed I could re-wire my brain but that this was unlikely to be a natural process. I put years of effort into developing a personal programme - none was offered to me and the attitude was ‘you must just be glad to be alive’. Thank goodness I did that because although my brain is always a work in progress, I believe that it is better now than it was 11 years ago.
Make an informed choice
To make an informed choice, people need to know. I speak to many people who have had strokes, traumatic brain injury or early onset dementia. Many have not been told that with practice and lifestyle changes they can build a better brain. They need hope, their families need hope and they need guidance. I meet younger people who had never thought about their brain who want to start now – to avoid future decline. Very wise! Above all, each of these people will be able to contribute to our economy or at least avoid the ignominy of being supported by it.
Be part of the change for a better future
The best scenario is that the dependency ratio will shift when more retirees can become a benefit to society through offering experience, adaptability and ethics. This is wisdom and–we certainly need more of it! However, we will only get it when we change our approach to aging and start to be proactive about building better brains for ourselves and encouraging everyone else.
Janis Grummitt is the General Manager of Workplace Wisdom and the Chief Wiring Officer of Wiring Warriors. www.workplacewisdom.co.nz and www.wiringwarriors.com