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Staying adaptive when everything is changing so fast in our world appears imperative. But in our inter-generational society, not everyone finds keeping up with the volume and velocity of change easy.

Sure digital natives might find it comparatively easy to absorb the new technologies but is this ability more than just a question of age vs. brain?

We are creatures of habit, embedding ways of doing that we have either been taught or developed ourselves. The brain loves this because operating on autopilot saves mental energy and allows us to focus our conscious thought on those other challenging decisions and difficult problems that require more brainpower.

The power of routine

Consistency in our behaviours reduces stress. Having those little routines that allow us to feel safe and secure to enjoy life is not all wrong, just as long as we don’t direct all our life that way.

My parents-in-law loved Miss Maud’s coffee house in the CBD. Every Friday without fail they would drive into town for their 12 midday lunch rendezvous with their favourite waitress who would take them to their favourite table so they could order their favourite meal. Friday wasn’t Friday without Miss Maud.

But what happens when our routines get challenged, when circumstances mean things have to be done differently? Being adaptive is crucial to know how to deal effectively with life’s curveballs whether due to illness, work-related problems or the Internet going down.

Adapting to change

As we age activity in the part of the brain’s circuitry that allows us to find strategies to deal with change reduces; making it harder to adapt to those changes in our environment. Now, this is no excuse to let yourself off the hook for being a grumpy old man (or woman) but does explain the need for greater understanding and support for older employees coping with new technologies and organisational change in the workplace. Encouragement to help them find a solution to their problem is vital to reduce the chance of them otherwise simply giving up.

Dr Bertran-Gonzalez and his team from the University of Queensland published their findings in Neuron that revealed how ageing mice (yes, back to furry rodent studies folks) get more easily confused when confronted with environmental change because of the reduction in the activity of a small group of specialised cells found in the striatum, the area of the brain associated with determining a behavioural response.

Imagine if as a mouse you had been taught that pressing one of two levers resulted in receiving either a savoury or sweet food pellet. Fantastic, well done you! But what if someone then decides to spice things up by swapping the outcome pressing those levers produces? You’re expecting savoury, but get sweet. Having produced some “Not happy Jan!” mice, the older group found it harder to integrate the new information with previous learning whereas the younger mice quickly learnt the new rules of the game.

What does this mean?

That maintaining mental flexibility helps us deal effectively with change – at any age, but especially as we get older. We can achieve this by continuing to stretch our mental muscle and elevating our level of brain fitness.

It’s about making the conscious choice to continue to learn new skills, especially those we expect to find hard or challenging to drive our brain’s natural plasticity and create new neural pathways to help us stay hip, flexi and cognitively spritely.

How easy do you find it to adapt to change?

Do you find yourself feeling baffled or confused by some of the modern technologies?

What do you do to avoid becoming too set in your ways?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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