In Cumming and Henry’s 1961 book Growing Old, they showed that older adults will often purposely withdraw from society in preparation of death. A common pattern is that retirement correlates with social disengagement.
The reality is that the older we get the more disengaged we can tend to become, both mentally and socially. Although this happens, it is far from inevitable, necessary or unavoidable. There is nothing inherent in growing older that necessitates these changes, and those wishing to age well should make a conscious effort to stretch their brains in the same way that they should be attentive to exercise their bodies. Norman Doidge has written about the way many people stop stretching their brains as they age.
Psychologically, middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. Our bodies aren’t changing as they did in adolescence; we’re more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career. We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills. Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.
The solution, Doidge suggested, is to stretch your brain in ways that require intense concentrated focus:
Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system [the control system for plasticity] – learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material. Merzenich himself is an advocate of learning a new language in old age. “You will gradually sharpen everything up again, and that will be very highly beneficial to you.
The same applies to mobility. Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape. To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both law down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones.
If you are elderly and preparing to sit your EPPP, then you are already on the right track. You are refusing to be boxed in to the ‘retirement’ mentality. Moreover, the sustained concentrated focus of EPPP preparation is just the type of brain-stretching activity to keep your brain nimble and sharp.