Susan McWhinney-Morse loved her neighborhood in the Beacon Hill area of Boston, but she sometimes worried about what would happen as she got older. Would she be able to stay in her wonderful home? Or would she be forced to move? She learned that many of her neighbors shared the same anxieties. How could they age without losing their independence and identities?
The environment we live in—including our home and our neighborhood—has a profound effect on our brain health and on our mental well-being. An “enriched” environment keeps our brains healthy and our minds active and vital. An impoverished environment has the opposite effect.
Starting in the 1960s, researcher Marian Diamond and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, placed rats into different kinds of environments and tested their health, longevity, and intelligence. It turned out that rodents raised in an “enriched environment” did better on all counts. Rats raised in standard lab cages fared worse. They were scrawny, sickly, short-lived, and developed weaker neuronal structures. The same turns out to be true for human beings.
So, what is an enriched environment? Here are the scientific basics:
An enriched environment is stimulating and challenging. It stretches the brain. It makes it work. A safe yet challenging environment puts just enough stress on body and brain to promote growth and development. Too much stress, of course, is destructive. But a low level of what we call “benign stress” triggers the body and brain to make itself stronger. A mind that is challenged becomes nimbler and, in a very real sense, more athletic—able to leap tall problems in a single bound!
An enriched environment has sufficient healthy food and safety. It has lots of toys for play and places for exercise. An enriched environment is filled with interesting things that provide challenges and stimulate learning. And, perhaps most important of all, an enriched environment offers engagement with lots of other people.
Conversely, scientists have found that an impoverished environment has the opposite effect. Plenty of research suggests that loneliness, isolation, inactivity (physical or mental), and poverty—with all the conditions that accompany it—stunt the growth and connectivity of brain cells.
An impoverished environment is unsafe, chaotic, polluted, and noisy. It is an environment where resources may be scarce, and people have little time or energy to nurture and care for one another.
Susan McWhinney-Morse did not want to be isolated in her old age. She did not want to give up the enriched environment she found in Beacon Hill. So in 1999, she and a group of neighbors got together to figure out how they could live independently and remain in their cherished neighborhood. Finding no existing model, they invented one.
Their innovative solution came to be known as Beacon Hill Village, where a new mindset flourished. Now with over 400 members, Beacon Hill Village is a vibrant, member-driven organization for local residents age 50 and older. It provides programs and services that allow members to lead active, vibrant, and healthy lives while living in their own homes as they age. The model invented by one woman and her neighbors launched the Village movement, which has now spread across the nation and around the world.
The Village movement is a wonderful example of people taking control of their own future through cooperation and creativity. By banding together and sharing their talents, their needs, their energy, and their concern for each other’s welfare, the members of a Village actively enrich their own environment. Rather than accept the inevitability of decline and loss, they actively engage their creative and experienced minds to design a happier and healthier older age. As President Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”
Michael C. Patterson, founder and CEO of MINDRAMP Consulting, writes extensively on the art and science of brain health and mental flourishing. He is an educator and consultant who previously managed AARP’s Staying Sharp brain health program and helped develop the field of creative aging.
8 Key Measures of Enrichment
The Cogwheels of Brain Health are eight interactive areas that influence your brain health and cognitive well-being. Use them as a guide to evaluate the relative enrichment (or impoverishment) of your home and neighborhood. Does your environment:
- Physical – Promote regular movement: aerobics, strength, balance, and flexibility?
- Mental stimulation – Offer novel, challenging, and creative mental activities?
- Social – Give you regular access to supportive, caring, and nurturing people?
- Stress – Help you feel safe and secure? Does it offer places to relax and unwind?
- Diet – Give you easy access to healthy food, clean drinking water, and air?
- Sleep and rest – Help you to get a good night’s sleep?
- Medical factors – Offer you access to affordable medical care?
- Environmental factors – Offer you access to nature, beauty, and wonder?
To learn more about the Village movement in the Pacific Northwest, The Village to Village Network, a national organization that supports local Villages, can be found online at vtvnetwork.org.