Written by Louis Cozolino

Aging does not have to mean growing old

Review by Gunnel Minett

Most of us have been taught to be careful ‘wasting’ our brain cells (through bad living and inactivity etc) since what we are born with will have to last us for life. Not true anymore according to modern neuroscience.

Louis Cozolino, psychotherapist and expert on interpersonal neuropsychology, presents an overview of the most recent research on the aging brain, which clearly shows that age is a very relative thing. Providing that we live in a positive way (which nature has designed us to do) the brain will continue to ‘renew’ itself well into old age.
Contrary to previous views, modern neuroscience has established that the brain has great plasticity that continues to function throughout life. Experiments have shown that older adults perform as well in intelligence and brain agility tests as younger ones. What they may lose in speed they gain in experience and ability to see a wider picture.

The book gives numerous examples as to how the brain ages and evolves over time. One essential factor in this process is how we relate to others as well as to ourselves. Cozolino illustrates, with many examples, the clear and deep relationship between neurobiology and the way we live. Maintaining a positive outlook on life, remaining curious and involving ourselves in wider social activities can significantly slow the rate at which the brain ages. He also shows that a vital brain has a direct link with longevity.

One of the really effective ways of maintaining a vital brain, Cozolino says, is to have lots of contact with children. Not only is this good for the older adult, it is equally good for children to have contact with older people. Grandparents tend to have a calmer tempo than parents, more time to devote to the child and more time for quite activities, something that many children lack today. It has been found that placing a nursery for children next to a retirement home often leads to a lot of spontaneous interaction between children and older adults.

A sad fact to note here is that this research goes completely against the prevailing (mis)conception in this country that adults showing an interest in children are doing so for suspect reasons only. This is despite the fact that research clearly shows that the risk for children in mixing with older adults is minimal, in particular compared with the benefits. What the result of this age segregation will be is too early to say, but according to Cozolino, many western societies have been moving towards a very destructive attitude towards older adults. Rather than taking advantage of their wisdom and natural role in society (as a resource of a special kind, which can only be obtain from a life of experience) older adults tend to lose their importance to society as soon as their working career is over. This is a great loss, not only on an individual basis, but for society as a whole since passive older adults tend to develop age-related illness and become a burden to society.

In particular these days when most countries in the western world are facing a dramatic increase of the older population there is a need for a substantial re-think in this area. With its clarity and positive approach this book is a great contribution to this debate.