Lifespan & Learning


Lifespan & Learning

Jenn Pilotti


One of the things that happens when you read books from similar, but different, areas is the observation of common themes. I have heard it said that there is no new information, only old information that is presented in new ways. While this isn’t exactly true because of advances in science and technology, what is true is the more often you see a specific concept represented in different contexts, the more likely you are to begin internalizing the concept. It becomes more familiar and, depending on the type of thinker you are, potentially more interesting.

The next few posts are related to books I’ve read in the last six months. They aren’t necessarily books I would recommend, though I learned something from all of them. You will see certain themes revisited from different angles, despite the fact these books are all on very different topics.

In the book “Lifespan: Why we age and why we don’t have to,” David Sinclair lays out a compelling argument for how to slow the cellular effects of aging so that we can extend our lifespans. “Our DNA is not our destiny,” Sinclair writes. Rather, the choices we make in our everyday lives have a more profound impact on our lifespan that the genes we are born with.

This isn’t a new idea, and if you want to dive into two excellent overviews of how our environment and the way we lead our lives impact our physiology, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book “The Gene: an intimate history” and Robert Sopolsky’s book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” take a much deeper dive into this specific topic. (Fair warning—while I found both books to be incredibly interesting, they are long.)

There are a number of things Sinclair suggests that are important if you want to live well into the triple digits, including exercise, being cold occasionally, and eating less food. These are ideas that are commonly mentioned in the pursuit of living a long life, largely because of a handful of well-known studies that show a link between each of these things and a response at the cellular level.* He also highlights the importance of learning throughout the lifespan as a critical piece to staying youthful.

Lifelong learning is extremely important for brain health and cognition. If you don’t believe you can do something because of your age, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if you stop learning, the different networks of the brain are no longer being challenged to create new connections from past experiences.

I have a client with early stages cognitive decline who is 80. Every session, I have her do at least one new movement. Sometimes it’s a movement puzzle (think obstacle course or figuring out how to stack blocks and walk them from point A to point B without dropping them). Other times I have her put together a sequence of movements in an unusual way, or I might have her do something that seems odd, like keeping her right hand on her right shoulder while she does box squats. These types of experiences challenge the cerebellum, the part of the brain that plans and executes movement. This part of the brain has also been implicated as an important part of cognitive processing.

Learning anything new requires focused attention. Focused attention occurs across the areas of the brain that make up the central executive network. These areas are conveniently involved in cognitive tasks that require paying attention.

If I teach my client a clubbell combination that she has never done before, she is going to focus more than if I have her do a banded external rotation, a drill she has done hundreds of times. Remembering the combination and figuring out how to execute the clubs in a way that feels relatively coordinated requires memorization, planning, and execution.

Working memory, which is the ability to keep small amounts of information readily accessible, is utilized during focused attention. If I am making a dozen cookies, I need to remember to start the oven, mix the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients, grease the cookie pan, put the cookies on the sheet, and set a timer to check whether the cookies are done. I keep all of these pieces, including the order in which they need to be performed, straight with my working memory.

Learning is one way to strengthen working memory and it’s arguable a way that feels more interesting than rote memorization. There is something about the appropriate level of challenge that our central nervous system finds rewarding—when we try something challenging and we succeed, hormones are released that give us a jolt of pleasure. I also wonder if succeeding when we are challenged does something deeper by reminding us that we are capable.

I don’t think it’s inconsequential that Einstein died while working on an equation or that Moshe Feldenkrais observed his breathing and how his body responded to his breath on the last days of his life. Both Einstein and Feldenkrais were said to have a playful quality to them, curious and observant until their last breaths.

Focused attention is also a common meditation technique. It involves focusing attention on a target, such as the breath, while avoiding internal and external distractions, like thoughts or sounds. Practicing meditation is related to a number of health benefits, including stress reduction, decrease in low back pain, and symptoms related to depression.

Since learning requires focused attention, it could be argued that perhaps learning is a way to practice mindfulness. When you learn, you interact with the environment in a new way and you challenge yourself in a way that requires you to pay attention; embarking in the act of learning means you are willing to try something new and fail, stumbling along until the skill or knowledge you are acquiring no longer feels like stumbling. The act of doing the thing you are learning becomes a way to focus, get curious, and explore.

Perhaps this is why some people experience such a profound shift when they learn a new movement modality such as yoga, Pilates, dance, olympic lifting, or skill-based bodyweight exercises. They slow down enough to focus and learn something interesting about themselves and their capacity to move in a different way. It could easily be argued that the ability to focus is a skill, one which is influenced by a number of factors including how you are feeling right now.

Or maybe the ability to focus is a way to shift how you are feeling right now. A few years ago I gave myself a corneal ulcer, which is essentially an open sore on the cornea of the eye. I was wearing my contacts too long and not giving my eyes a chance to breathe.

The cornea, which is the transparent layer that covers the front of the eye, is the most densely innervated tissue in the body. This means there is more information being sent to your brain at any given time about how your eye feels than there is about how your shin feels. My eye doctor explained to me that scientists speculate the reason we have so much sensation in our eyes is to protect them. Saving our vision by feeling when something is wrong is an evolutionary benefit to survival.

The amount of pain I was experiencing by the time I finally went to see her was apparently enough to send most people to the emergency room. I, however, had been living with it for several days, observing when it was at its worst and noticing when it would disappear.

The disappearing occurred during moments of immersion, when my focus was entirely on learning handstands or writing an article. The pain would quietly recede as my attention shifted until it was no longer there. I wouldn’t really notice it was gone until I stopped what I was doing and it returned, bringing with it an insurmountable wave of fatigue.

Focused attention and learning both lead to more mental adaptability and improved confidence. To learn requires challenge; challenge requires focus, meeting the challenge successfully improves confidence and creates a different vantage point than the learner had prior to successfully completing the challenge. With practice, the challenge no longer requires as much focus and so the learner either moves on or pursues the activity from a different angle, one that is inspired by previously acquired knowledge or an innate curiosity.

Learning changes you. It broadens your viewpoint and allows you to make deeper, more rich connections between seemingly disparate topics. And these connections lead to a personal evolution, one that allows an individual to lead an enriched, fulfilled life. Maybe that matters more than whether you live to be 120.

*Many of the studies that Sinclair uses to make his case have been done in animal models and have yet to be replicated in humans. In fact, this paper, published in 2018, found that while chronic caloric restriction led to longevity in mice, it also led to a decrease in grey matter in the cerebrum (without change in cognition)

*It is worth mentioning that the book also emphasizes a supplement regime and that Sinclair has monetary interest to the molecules he enthusiastically recommends in his book. (This article does a nice job exploring the complexity behind Sinclair and his work.) I, personally, disliked the emphasis on taking something to live forever, but I did appreciate the ideas about how to live well and die short because that, I think, is something we as a society should continue to pursue.

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