For release 01/01/2006

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By Humberto Cruz and Georgina Cruz

Tribune Media Services

We still see it happen too many times. An older adult, after being encouraged to learn something new - a foreign language or musical instrument, for instance - gives up with the excuse that "I am too old now.''

That attitude is not just defeatist. It is also plain wrong.

True, after age 50, our ability to remember names, retrieve information and multitask tends to diminish (although we wonder, what's so great about juggling too many things at once?)

Those changes are a normal part of aging and not a sign of disease, said Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist who specializes in brain health.

But that does not mean we have to stop learning. Despite common myths and misconceptions, the human brain can continue to develop and express new talents throughout our lives.

"Tradition was that the critical period for brain development was supposed to end at age 5,'' said Nussbaum, an Adjunct Professor of Neurological Surgery in neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "But that whole notion has been debunked'' New research indicates that we can continue to help our brains well into later life, and other studies have shown a relationship between creativity and advanced age.

"The brain continues to be highly dynamic,'' able to change and adapt, Nussbaum said. For optimum brain health, he said, "we want to expose our brains to really stimulating environments'' that include social relationships, physical activity and mental challenges.

Today many older Americans are doing just that, returning to school and launching second careers rather than settling for a passive retirement. Others are unleashing their creativity through music or art. But an enriching environment can be as simple as a family meal at which you eat without rushing and take the time to talk to one another.

"All those things are very helpful,'' said Nussbaum, who has written a 60-page book "Love Your Brain: A Lifestyle Guide to Brain Health Across Your Lifespan'' sponsored by the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The book is available for $10, plus shipping and handling, from Nussbaum's Web site, A free leaflet on "Ten Tips to Maintaining Brain Health,'' based on the book, is available from the institute by calling 203-221-6580 or from its Website,

We found Nussbaum's book illuminating and empowering. After reading it, we share the author's passion for promoting brain health. (Why not, for instance, have an American Brain Association the way we have an American Heart Association, or teach the basics of brain health in schools?)

"It is serious business,'' Nussbaum said. "We are losing a lot of folks'' to diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and stroke (the latter is a brain disease, not a heart disease, Nussbaum said). We also need to identify behaviors that promote brain health.

Among Nussbaum's suggestions for older adults:

- Do not "retire'' in the passive sense, but keep active by pursuing a passionate hobby, volunteer activity or even a new line of work. "Have a purpose or meaning for getting up in the morning,'' Nussbaum said. "Without that, health deteriorates.''

- Enroll in a lifelong learning course or university- or college-based course. Your brain needs to be regularly fed information.

- Engage in novel and complex pursuits and minimize what's rote and passive, such as watching too much television. Learn a second language. Express your inner talents through art, music or other endeavors.

- Pursue activities that keep your brain active and have been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. Among them are gardening, travel, playing board games, knitting and dancing.

- Walk every day; 10,000 steps is a good number to shoot for. Buy a pedometer to remind you to walk and to keep track of how many steps you take.

- Pray or meditate daily and refrain from rushing.

- Maintain social networks. Do not isolate and segregate yourself. Engage in activities with children. Laugh and have fun.

(Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column. Send questions and comments to,, or c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Personal replies are not possible.)



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