There was a time when turning 60 meant getting a humorous or sarcastic birthday card depicting an over-the-hill scenario. It still happens, but now boomer-aged folks know better. In fact, recent neuroscience research seems to confirm that changes in the brain and endocrine system at around age 60 lead to generally improved mood and increased ability to focus. But focus on what?

When I considered winding down my lengthy psychology career, I became curious about the best ways to stay cognitively fit and I wondered what activities might be best for stimulating my brain, psyche and body. Moving into unchartered territory, this life stage lacks a clearly defined path and set of expectations. On the plus side, there’s often more time available as external demands slow enough to make room for new interests. Many of us are still physically active, intellectually curious, emotionally stable, and yearn for meaningful ways to spend our time. But how?

Too many questions and too few answers led to my research — investigating the best ways to maintain brain fitness. Spurred by my interest in writing and music, I hypothesized that when the brain is fed a diet of complexity, newness, and problem solving, it can flourish throughout life. In the process, I learned that taking up a fine art form maximally stimulates the brain and the psyche, which led to my attempting to learn to play the cello. After six years, I’m still playing and learning.

Writing short stories, learning to play music, or painting landscapes, for example, all supercharge the brain — no prior experience required! Through interviews with late-blooming artists while researching the subject, I got a glimpse into what a 60- or 90-year-old set of hands and eyes, combined with heart and mind, can produce in the way of music, visual art or writing. Yes, you can learn to play the piano at 80.

The brains’ very resilient and flexible nature gives it the capacity to change when we decide to make a change — which often isn’t until the demands of earlier life begin to recede. It turns out that this timing is perfect, because the two sides of our brains become linked and increasingly interdependent as we age, amplifying what we are capable of doing, thinking, and seeing.

While the older brain, roughly after age 55, processes more slowly than its young or middle-age counterpart, it’s amply compensated by better focusing on individual tasks, having fewer distractions and interferences associated with the complexities of earlier life. The natural evolution of the brain also allows older people to use both hemispheres to do a particular task more effectively.

Much has been written about the need to stay physically fit as we age but only recently has there been a focus on ways to maintain brain sharpness. Thanks to advances in brain science, outdated and erroneous views about the brain’s irreversible decline beginning at about age 30 have been reversed.

The brain, like a muscle, benefits from vigorous use. Nerve cells do increase along with connections linking brain cells — reversing earlier scientific thinking. Now we know that there are some things we can do that really do boost brain functioning. It turns out that activities that involve newness, complexity, and problem solving — especially plentiful in the fine arts, serve as robust tonics for the aging brain, validated by neuroscience research.

Image source: New Old Stock

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  • Francine Toder, Ph.D.

    Psychologist, retired university faculty, cello student, writer, grandmother, author

    Francine Toder, Ph.D. is an emeritus faculty member of California State University, Sacramento and is a clinical psychologist retired from private practice. She is also the author of four books including her recently published book: "Inward Traveler: 51 Ways to Explore the World Mindfully." Her extensive writing on diverse topics appears in magazines, professional journals, newspapers, blog sites and as edited book chapters. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband when she’s not traveling the world.