Featured Photo: Skate skis on perfect corduroy, Baker Park, Minnesota, February 2022

Olga Kotelko (1919-2014) was a Canadian track and field athlete. In his marvelous, well-written book What Makes Olga Run? Author Bruce Grierson documents her life and extraordinary achievements. Olga took up track at age 77… for fun. By her early 90s, she held over 30 world records and won over 750 gold medals. She competed in twelve track and field events at the elite level including the World Masters Athletic Championships and the World Masters Games. If you “age-grade” Olga’s performance, she matched the distances and times of world-class and Olympic athletes. Not only was she holding her own in her 90’s… she was getting better.

Perhaps Olga was one in a billion blessed with incredible genes. We can’t be her, but we can be like her. In my article, Don’t Let the Old Man In https://crooked-thumb.com/2021/05/04/dont-let-the-old-man-in-seven-strategies-for-adding-life-to-your-years/ I write about how when can live like Olga. In this edition of What I Learned, I focus on the lifelong benefits of challenging yourself to learn new skills.

The Science of Neuroplasticity

It is called neuroplasticity: the process the brain uses to retrofit itself by growing new neural connections when exposed to novel circumstances.  We flatter ourselves thinking we are lifelong learners. But in many cases we are deceiving ourselves. Things we do to stay sharp are merely a replay of life-long habits: watching the news, reading the paper or working out doing the same routine over and over again. Growing the brain as we age requires the challenge of learning new skills.

Our brains, like most everything else in our bodies, shrink over time. By the time we are 90 years old, we have half the axons of nerves we had in our 20s. But scientists have found something interesting studying the brains of seniors over the last fifteen years. Certain groups of seniors have denser brains, more neural connections and less atrophy. There is no single answer for this, rather research indicates a number of factors effect brain density.

Certainly good diet and sleep have been linked to improved brain function. Anything requiring the brain to focus attention on learning something novel causes neural connections to grow. Learning a new language strengthens cognition. Research shows exercise is the best brain builder of all. Scientific studies show exercise stimulates all aspects of cognition: reasoning, spatial function, processing speed, learning, balance, memory and decision making. When you combine cognitive training and exercise multiplier effects emerge. The two processes work in concert producing a powerful stimulus to rewire the brain.

Cognitive Reserve

This stimulus creates “cognitive reserve.” Cognitive reserve is having more brain tissue and connections combined with a learned ability to improvise and be more resilient. An athlete trains their body to develop strength, coordination and aerobic fitness. Education and learning develops more neural pathways and connection creating a buffer zone that protects us as our brains age. Research shows those with a more resilient personality are better equipped to hold off cognitive decline.

The science of health is complex. Your body evolved over millions of years. The body and brain are perfectly designed to survive in the natural world, but not for eating processed food, watching TV, sitting idle on the couch. There is a huge difference between a great looking, healthy old person and one who has let themselves go.

Nature set our bodies up to naturally decay. “Rust never sleeps.” The keys to overriding decay are exercise, emotional engagement, nutrition and having a spiritual connection. The phrase, “You get old and then you die.”  Should be rewritten to, “You get old and then you live.” Okinawans living in one of the famous “Blue Zones” have the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world. Elders there talk about the importance of ikigai which translates as “a reason to get up in the morning.” Find your ikigai and build your cognitive reserve. Don’t go down without a fight.

The Old Dog Learns New Tricks

This week I put my cross-country skate skis in the rack… probably for the season. I took up skate skiing fifteen months ago at age 66. The Twin Cities metropolitan area of Minnesota has arguably the best big city, cross-country skiing in the world. Learning an athletic skill is hard; frustrating, challenging. Yet being outside in winter descending a hill at 40 mph on skinny skis captured my spirit. Last season I was the slowest guy on the trail, exhausted each time a got back to my car. This year, with the help of a coach, I logged over 300 miles/500 kilometers of skiing. I gained speed and efficiency. Most importantly. I felt joy in being outdoors from 10 F below zero to thirty above with snow conditions ranging from fresh soft snow to hard packed corn. By the end of the season, I was mentally and physically enriched returning to my car after a ten mile ski.

All my life I have been attracted to adventure sports: backcountry skiing, rock and ice climbing. In my forties, I took my rock climbing skills into the realm of big-wall climbing learning to spend days climbing and living in a vertical environment. At age fifty six, I retired from difficult climbing and learned to paraglide. While not physically challenging, paragliding demands rigorous mental discipline. I also jumped into bicycle racing in my fifties. Now in my 60s, I am learning to skate ski. These sports have a long learning curve. You can’t push it. The risks of failure are consequential. These sports give me ikigai. They keep me humble. They keep me resilient.  They have helped me survive the multitude of challenges life and my own mistakes have thrown at me the last ten years. I still participate in all my adventure sports; still a competitive cyclist.

Switching to a new career as a personal trainer at age sixty has been a learning experience. I have learned and continue to learn about fitness training, nutrition, and aging. I engage with wonderful people who are my clients and friends. I have the privilege of making a difference in their lives. This also gives me ikigai.

I am finding new ways to learn and challenge my brain. With a career of technical writing in the rearview mirror, I started writing creative non-fiction in 2017. I took writing classes. I love creating and editing. Each time I sit down and write I am creating new neuron connections and a denser brain. In six years I have published three articles in national magazines and another four in international literary journals. Even though my brain is growing, I still forget where I put my car keys.

I am learning a new language. My partner is Korean-American. She speaks fluent Korean. It’s hard learning a language in your 60s. I have trouble hearing the sounds, speaking with the right accent and learning a new alphabet and grammar. When I say goodbye in Korean to the kid at the Korean grocery store it feels good. I don’t care if all these learning experiences make me live longer. Like Olga, I want to make sure I live well.

Photo: Steve and Max Markusen sharing a skate ski and a laugh, Baker Park, Minnesota, January 2022

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