Q. This is the year I get to retire. As I look around me at others who have retired, I don't always like what I see. Will I inevitably become set in my ways as I grow older?

brainA. If you mean will you become more like yourself as you grow older, the short answer is, in all likelihood—yes. Every thought you think and every experience you experience changes the very structure of your brain. Therefore, since no one ever thinks the same thoughts or has identical experiences, you actually become more different from others and more like yourself as you grow older.

If you mean will you inevitably become less flexible as you age, the short answer is not necessarily. Neurological research has shown that the human brain has a great deal of plasticityan ability to change its physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) as a result of input from the environment. Wikipedia lists learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage as the most widely recognized forms of brain plasticity.

As the brain ages and has less available energy, many people fall back on learned habits and routines that take little thought to activate and accomplish. On the other hand, whether or not you decide to become set in your ways also has a great deal to do with personal choice and with the way in which your brain’s energy advantage is structured. Those who have their energy advantage in the lower left lobes of the cerebrum tend to avoid change because it would require revamping existing software patterns or creating new ones. It takes less energy to avoid doing either. Whether that is good for you or will help you age gracefully is another thing. That’s a personal brain journey.

Trees that have a great deal of flexibility and can bend with the wind are much less likely to be seriously damaged during a storm. Often those that aren’t are either damaged severely or uprooted and demolished outright. In a similar way, humans who have honed their ability to be flexible, to change with the times, and to roll with the current situation may not only experience less stress to their brain but also may avoid digging in their heels (metaphorically) to the point of becoming almost immobile—i.e., set in their ways.

Here’s the bottom line: become now the person you want to be then. If you want to be a continually curious seeker of emerging research, open to differing ways of doing things, stimulated by the ideas and perceptions of others, and creative in your approach to problem solving and graceful aging, make sure that is what you are doing now.