A psychotherapist on mindful aging and the brain’s life-long plasticity.
When it comes to the topic of aging, Dr. Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., MFT has more than just professional experience as a licensed psychotherapist who’s been practicing for more than 35 years. She has personal experience, too. “I come from a very matriarchal family where the women lived and thrived and produced into their 90s. They never made a big deal out of aging, they just kept moving forward.”
Her grandmother, for example, got divorced at the age of 92. When Brandt asked why, her grandmother replied, “Well, he’s just holding me back.” After Brandt’s mother lost her eyesight at age 77, she went back to work for another five years.
Brandt’s most recent book, “Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life After 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose and Joy,” (PESI Publishing, 2017) was inspired by the women that raised her. It’s also about embracing the time we’ve been given. “We do not live forever,” she says. “So don’t sit on your tush and not do something you want to do. Do it now. .. We’re all going to die. The question is how are we going to live?”
She points out that so many people get caught up in the numbers. “How many times have you heard people say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that, I’m too old’?” Brandt says. “What I want people to know is that there’s no magical age at which we need to abandon our dreams and surrender our possibilities. We need to stop buying into the stereotypical message we get from society about aging, which is, ‘you’re over the hill,’ when I think we’re on top of the mountain. … Aging can be about so much more. ‘Mindful Aging’ is about not getting stuck in those old beliefs.”
In her book, Brandt talks about new research that shows that our brains remain “plastic”—that is, they are able to change and learn and make new connections up until the day we die. Brandt advises readers to take advantage of this characteristic, as constantly developing our brains can slow the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Brandt shares five things that can help people age mindfully and take advantage of their brain’s plasticity for a lifetime of health and wellness.
Remember, the present is where we can make a difference, and the future is always filled with possibility. We create a tomorrow we love by what we intend, believe and do today. ~ Andrea Brandt
Learn a new skill
Brandt notes that we should be learning a new skill or trying something new—long past our college years and our 20s.
“I went to a lecture, recently, on Alzheimer’s, and people who have the gene—there’s nothing they can do about that,” says Brandt. “However, what they can do is slow it down by changing their lifestyle. They can learn a musical instrument that they’ve never played before. They can learn a foreign language. These things all slow down dementia and Alzheimer’s.”
Reading and learning new skills, she says, are some simple ways to keep creating new pathways in the brain and keep our brains “fit” as we age.
We were not meant to be alone. It’s been scientifically proven that loneliness has negative health consequences, such as an increase in cardiovascular disease and reduced life expectancy.
“We need to constantly be social and making connections. We are social beings,” says Brandt.
“I really believe most people go through life in a trance,” Brandt notes. “They just do what they do. They get up in the morning, they brush their teeth, wash their face, get in the shower, eat breakfast, go to work. And nobody pauses to take a breath or a moment to see what they really feel about anything.”
Mindfulness, she says, allows us to slow down, breathe and take stock of the here and now. “It is about being in the moment, noticing what you’re feeling, thinking, what memory you might have in the here and now, in a very non-judgmental way.”
Try this daily meditation: “One of the things that I do is just sit with myself and do what the Buddhists call Metta meditation, which is, ‘May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live a long and healthy life.’ And then I go down the list of my husband and all my friends. I think we need to have a meditation of gratitude, because that brings joy.”
Exercise and eat healthy
Brandt is a huge proponent of eating healthy and exercising for your overall brain and body health. “You should never be smoking or eating junk food, if possible. Aometimes we just say ‘to hell with it!’ and we eat junk food for a day or two, and that’s fine, that’s not going to hurt anybody.”
As for exercise, Brandt advises changing things up—yet another way to keep teaching your brain new things. And for the older crowd: “Get out and go for a walk. Walking will bring up the endorphins.” She adds, “Your brain doesn’t know how old it is.”
Ditch the negative self-talk
Getting rid of negative self-talk is absolutely imperative to mental and physical health. Dr. Brant explains why she lives by the phrase “Energy follows thought.”
If you’re positive, she says, “You’re going to get up in the morning. You’re going to feel good. Your self-talk will be of a positive nature. If, on the other hand, you wake up and say, ‘Oh, God. This is going to be a terrible day. Life sucks,’ everything goes down: your brain power, your energy, your body, everything. You won’t feel like going out and exercising. You won’t have the energy. You won’t have the motivation.”