How to Improve Your Mental Flexibility as You Age
When Dean Wormer confronted the members of Delta House in his office in the iconic film, 'Animal House', he challenged Flounder, the naïve fraternity pledge, with the now-famous adage, "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life son". Most people would agree that alcohol can make you stupid. But what about being fat?
Certain groups and individuals have for years criticized the writer and filmmakers over the line, calling it an example of 'fat-shaming'. But is there actually a correlation between body fat and cognition? Scientific research suggests that there is indeed a relationship between excess body fat and certain cognitive functions, especially mental flexibility.
How can we improve our mental flexibility as we age, and what are some of the aging-related factors which contribute to decreased mental flexibility?
Mental Flexibility Is The Ability to Adapt and Respond
Mental flexibility is our ability to adapt and respond to changing situations and problems effectively. Mental flexibility allows us to see things from multiple perspectives, adapt to changes as they take place, learn from our mistakes, find novel ways to solve problems, and shift between logical and intuitive thinking. Mental flexibility depends upon having a healthy brain and involves a broad spectrum of cognitive activity.
Unfortunately, that healthy brain needed for mental flexibility is compromised by obesity, according to Timothy Verstynen Ph.D., a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He says the brains of obese people have to work harder than the brains of normal weight people in order to function properly.
In a study led by Dr. Verstynen, he and his colleagues concluded that the connections between areas of the brain responsible for memory and decision-making were hyperactive in overweight people, whereas those same areas functioned normally in average weight people . "That's because high blood pressure and inflammation—which go hand-in-hand with obesity—irritate your brain's communication systems, making it harder for messages to come through,'' said Verstynen. "And it's a vicious cycle: the damage is particularly bad in areas responsible for controlling impulsive behaviors, like skipping dessert. So, your brain is making you fat (succumbing to the impulse to eat sweets), and then being fat is changing your brain".
Mental Flexibility and Psychological Disorders
Obesity has also been linked to depression. The relevance here between depression and mental flexibility is that, according to research, there is a relationship between unwanted (negative) thoughts and emotions, and a person's ability to flexibly cope with stressful situations.
Numerous research studies have concluded that obesity increases the risk of depression by as much as fifty-five percent by increasing brain inflammation, which in turn damages brain circuitry, also referred to as 'white matter' [2,3]. So-called 'white matter' in brain tissue is made up of nerve circuitry (axons), which are enwrapped by myelin, a type of fat. It is the myelin which determines the speed at which signals between brain cells are able to send and receive information.
Also worthy of note is that one of the principal culprits here appears to be fast food. According to a 2012 report in Public Health Nutrition, if you are in the top twenty-five percent of fast food consumers, you are over fifty percent more likely to suffer from depression .
A 2018 study, published in "Frontiers in Psychology", demonstrated the relationship between depression and mental flexibility by way of the "Cognitive Control and Flexibility Questionnaire (CCFQ). The study concluded, in part:
"This questionnaire measures an individual's perceived ability to exert control over intrusive, unwanted (negative) thoughts and emotions, and their ability to flexibly cope with a stressful situation…Higher scores on the CCFQ were most strongly related to greater cognitive reappraisal as well as less perseverative thinking and rumination… Thus, although each measure (of the CCFQ) might be useful in different settings, their concurrent use might be equally valuable in distinguishing different aspects of cognitive flexibility relevant to stress-related psychopathology… Moreover, although the present research focused on depressive symptoms, the CCFQ might also be useful in relation to other psychiatric disorders that have been associated with impaired cognitive control and flexibility, including anxiety (e.g., obsessive–compulsive disorder), substance abuse, bipolar, and eating disorders" .
Decreases in quantity and functionality of white matter, caused by higher levels of BMI (body mass index), appear to be correlated with reductions in cognitive abilities, including mental flexibility. "Obesity and decreased physical health are linked to deficits in several cognitive domains. The broad range of cognitive problems linked to obesity suggests a global mechanism that may interfere with multiple neural systems…variation in body mass index is associated with the microstructural integrity of fiber connections in the human brain" .
Higher Body Mass and Dementia
Another study, published in the journal, 'Neurology', reported that people who are obese during their middle age years are significantly more likely to develop dementia later in life due to obesity-induced inflammation that destroys part of your brain circuitry required for proper memory function . The study concluded, "This systematic review and meta-analysis suggests a positive association between obesity in mid-life and later dementia".
Higher Body Mass and Mental Flexibility
Iowa State University scientists recently reported on research which links reduced mental flexibility in older people with excess body fat and reduced muscle mass [8,9]. Changes in our immune response ability may be at the root of the problem, they concluded. People with a higher BMI, (body mass index), correlate with higher immune system activity, which in turn triggers brain immune response, causing cognitive impairment, including reduced mental flexibility.
The ISU scientists discovered that people in their 40's and 50's with higher concentrations of body fat in their mid-sections had reduced mental flexibility as they grew older. Greater amounts of muscle, on the other hand, appear to be brain protective and correlate with higher mental flexibility. The determining factor was more related to biological age (as measured by body fat vs muscle), than chronological age.
Achieving Ideal Body Weight and Mental Flexibility as We Age
How can we prevent a reduction in our mental flexibility as we grow older? What activities can we engage in and what forms of dietary supplementation will help us achieve this?
Exercise – Throughout our lives, and especially beginning in our 30's and 40's, we should be regularly active in a way that is appropriate to our age and physical capabilities. The younger and healthier we are, the more we need to push ourselves with resistance training and intense cardio activities. If we're a bit older, or we have some physical limitations, we may want to consult a health professional when devising an exercise regimen. But within the framework of our capacity to exercise, we need to get out there and do it! The mind may not want to cooperate at first, but after a little repetition, a new habit will be formed and the mind will get on board.
Brain stimulation – Exercise your brain. Find some new things to do. Take a trip to a place you've never been. Buy a puzzle book. Sign up for a course in adult education. Learn a new language. Don't stay in that same old rut. Stimulate your brain with challenges and new experiences.
Diet and Supplementation:
Eating habits – Obviously, if we're going to get the weight under control, and keep it under control, our diet is paramount. If you're carrying too much weight, get real about it. Change your eating habits. Start over. Cut your sugar intake in half and then cut it in half again. Cut down on carbs; bread and pasta. Discover natural foods – fruits and vegetables, whole grains, yogurt, fresh seeds and nuts…etc. Get dietary counseling if necessary. Again, the mind may protest at first, but after a few weeks, the mind will grow to love the new dietary program.
Nutraceuticals - In the studies mentioned above, we read that mental flexibility involves our ability to adapt to changing situations. So, an effective herbal adaptogen is needed. Ashwagandha and Rhodiola rosea are two ideal choices. Both have cognitive enhancing qualities plus energy boosting properties for that new exercise program.
Another contributing factor to compromised mental flexibility, mentioned repeatedly in the above studies, is inflammation, especially brain inflammation. There are two proven anti-inflammatory herbal supplements that will help fight brain inflammation: Bacopa monnieri,  and curcumin .
Change Your Habits
Getting your weight under control, and keeping it under control, will require forming new habits. Psychologists tell us that forming a new habit requires repetition. If we want to create a new action or thought pattern, it takes about sixty repetitions, on average: sixty trips to the gym, sixty days on the new dietary regimen, etc . The mind loves habits. Habits are the mind's comfort zone. But we need to be the boss and dictate to the mind what those habits will be!
Whatever you do, don't try to do too much all at once. Instead, select tiny habits that are not hard to stick to, and are selected to get you to your goals step by step.
Your Key Takeaways
Remember these three things:
- Mental flexibility is our ability to adapt and respond to changing situations and problems effectively. Obviously, life is filled with change and problems that you want to be prepared to address.
- Obesity affects your ability to handle the downside of what life serves you both by how it impacts your physiology and psychology, so it's imperative that you take steps to eat less, eat healthier and exercise.
- Change is hard and so you will need to adopt proven ways to implement new habits to make the positive changes you desire.