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Nurses for Brain Health: Being Outliers as Role Models

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing; the study and application of what it takes for people and communities to adapt and thrive; and the study of building the best things in life.

Chris Peterson, PhD

“Get nurses involved because they are the work force of the world.”

When told of my international effort to improve Brain Health, that was the advice given to me by Patrick DeLeon, PhD, JD, a visionary and a trailblazer, who was Chief of Staff for former US Senator Daniel Inouye and a former president of the American Psychological Association.

Let’s agree with DeLeon. In addition to nurses being “the work force of the world,” they also are the role models of healthy living that most folks trust to give them wise counsel. The purpose of this writing is to share some evolving neuroscience that is both invigorating and empowering to enhance what you’ve been doing as a great role model who gives wise counsel.

Let’s begin with an example of how evolving neuroscience can enhance how we help self and others. Across my entire career, I’ve encouraged focusing on the fact that we just have more data on our minds as we age, much like the fact that all my important papers used to be portable in a briefcase; in comparison, the “important papers” now crowd 27 drawers in five file cabinets; that requires a remarkably different complex set of skills to get in the right drawer before finding the paper that must be found.

Ramscar and colleagues completed a series of random controlled trials to arrive at a more elegant statement. They wrote that the performance of elders “reflects increased knowledge, not cognitive decline;” they emphasized that changes in cognitive performance around retirement age reflect greater memory search demands as experience grows. Seeing an aging population as a problem bound to place undue burdens on society would “only serve to perpetuate myths” such that “the myth of cognitive decline is leading to an absurd waste of human potential and human capital.”

Let’s restate that in the empowering perspective of Positive Psychology: By believing that our differences in processing information and memory with aging are associated with the richness of our life experiences, we hold onto the positive emotions that can enhance our immune response as well as our motivation to keep on keeping on. This could give us a much better purchase on our resolve to build better brains with our positively evolving personal best.

One rather lovely example of aging well is the oldest working nurse, Florence Rigney, RN, who turned 92 in May 2017. KING-5 in Seattle quotes her saying she feels “honored and humbled” to still be working at Tacoma General Hospital in Washington, USA, as well as “very blessed to be still able to function.”

Another is Frieda Lefeber who had her first solo art exhibit at the age of 100. Working as a nurse for more than fifty years influenced her commitment to healthy lifestyle choices which reportedly includes exercising five mornings a week.

Speaking of exercising: Robert Marchand of France set a world record for his age group by bicycling 14 miles in one hour at the age of 105. His ten years of bicycling ended at the age of 25 when he began his career as “a gardener and wine dealer.” His first world record in track cycling was achieved in 2012 when he was in the over-100 age group and completed 24.250 kilometers in one-hour. He improved his performance two years later at age 103! Scientists studied Mr. Marchand for two years during which Mr. Marchand trained 5,000 kilometers per year with 20% of his cycling at a rapid rate of perceived exertion and pedaling at a rate between 50 and 70 revolutions per minute. Although this is a case study, it is noteworthy that it is the first proof of a centenarian having capacity to improve physical performance and maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max)! These scientists suggest that this improved performance in centenarians is a way to “add life to life.”

That’s particularly pertinent to Brain Health. Aerobic exercise can help you build a better brain because it may: reduce toxins in your brain – even those associated with Alzheimer’s disease; reduce inflammation which has been associated with neurodegeneration; reverse some of the effects of aging; improve your immune response; increase your healthy cholesterol and lower you LDL; protect against brain damage; elevate your mood (better than medications); lengthen your telomeres (protectors at the end of your DNA & antiaging) AND improve your sleep, memory, concentration, speed and executive functions. Also, aerobically fit nurses and others have more fun!


  • Joyce Shaffer, PhD, is a psychologist, nurse, speaker, global bicyclist and author. Nothing that she writes or says is intended as healthcare advice; her only promise is to bring you as much evidence-based information as she can get her mind around. She is co-founder of Brain Health by YOU for the sole purpose of improving brain Health internationally.  
  • “Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health” is her open source peer reviewed research article published by Frontiers in Psychology.
  • © Joyce Shaffer 30-12-2017
  • The opinions expressed in this Make-up Article do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rotary eClub One and its editorial staff

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