It’s back to school time for all the youngsters. But what about we grown-ups? Just because I’ve finished my degrees, does it mean I’ve finished learning? OF COURSE NOT. Learning and good health are tightly coupled for me.

By now we know that there are a few things we can do to age in a healthy way:

  • keep physically active
  • be a lifelong learner
  • get good brain-fueling nutrition

These areas of advice are covered in Michael Gelb’s book, Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age. What jumped out for me was the notion of “Thinking Counterclockwise”.

Gelb notes the deplorable attitudes our culture has toward aging. These attitudes are in the media. They are in the young. They are in our workplaces. And they are in our heads. He advises us to banish these phrases from our vocabulary:


Instead we can focus on changing our mind, literally, about the aging process. Social psychologist, Dr. Ellen Langer, conducted a fascinating study with two groups of elderly men who were in the care of their relatives. The first group went to the retreat site and reminisced about their lives twenty years earlier. They had a pleasant weekend and showed some improvements in their mental and physical functioning when they were retested.

The second group went to the same retreat site for one week with the instructions to return as completely as possible in their minds to twenty years prior. Every conversation was held in present tense as if it were twenty years earlier. They watched old television shows as if they were new, they argued politics of that day, read ‘contemporary’ fiction and listened to old championship games. In every mental way possible they became twenty years younger. What happened?

Almost immediately they became independent, despite their normal reliance on relatives. Follow-up tests showed dramatic improvements in memory, flexibility, vision, hearing, appetite and general well-being. Most striking of all? Their shriveled, arthritic fingers actually lengthened and released as the men adopted a more youthful attitude.

As Dr. Langer notes, “Simply having a positive attitude made far more difference than any to be gained from lowering blood pressure or reducing cholesterol. While exercise and eating well are important for health, our attitudes about what it means to be healthy or to be old may be even more important.”

The book shares other encouraging research. We know that learning a new language is an excellent workout for our brains although it’s generally acknowledged that it is more challenging when we are older. But, no. “Studies comparing the rate of second language acquistiion in children and adults have shown that…in the long run, adults actually learn languages more quickly than children”, says Dr. Mary Schleppegrell, University of Michigan.

So, go ahead and buy that language system and learn to speak Mandarin. Keep moving. And, more than anything, know that you ARE getting better.