Staying mentally sharp and fit
If you are of a certain age, it’s probably happened to you: You walk into a room and forget what you came for. You misplace your car keys. Again. And although you try and try to remember the name of that acquaintance in front of you, your mind goes blank.
Oh no, you think. Is this a sign of Alzheimer’s? Am I losing my brainpower?
If you have such concerns, you’re not alone. A recent survey by the Alzheimer’s Association showed that 60 percent of people worldwide believe—incorrectly—that Alzheimer’s is an inevitable part of ageing, a worry second only to getting cancer. The good news is that there is more information than ever available these days about staving off mental decline and staying sharp into your twilight years.
There’s so much research out there, in fact, that it would be hard to wade through it all. That’s what makes the new book Ageless Brain: Think Faster, Remember More, and Stay Sharper by Lowering Your Brain Age so useful. Here are six useful tips from the book.
- Challenge yourself.
One especially useful idea is to get out of your comfort zone by tackling something new, even though you might feel a bit befuddled at first. That sense of befuddlement actually challenges the brain to stretch, say the authors. “The comfort zone is where the brain turns to mush.”
- “Retire to something, not from something.”
Here, the editors offer an interesting observation: “Sadly, though early retirement may seem like paradise, it’s hell on the brain. That’s because our work is often one of the most consistently stimulating things we do.” In fact, when researchers studied civil servants in Britain 14 years before and after their retirement, they found that retirement presaged a decline in their short-term ability to recall words.
- Learn something new every day.
That’ll build up your cognitive reserves. The editors refer to a fascinating study of London cab drivers, who are all required to pass a test that involves memorizing a city map of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. According to brain scans, the drivers who had passed that test had actually reshaped a key region of their brains, strengthening cognitive function.
- Stay connected to others.
Your brain gets a workout when you interact with other people. In one study, elderly people who had the least social connection at the beginning of the experiment experienced twice as much memory loss over six years compared to those who had the highest levels of social connection. “Widen your social circle,” say the authors. “In short, think of your brain as a puppy—both need human connection and something to chew on.”
- Find your balance.
Studies have shown that people who can’t stand on one leg for more than 20 seconds are more likely to have damage to small blood vessels in the brain, such as tiny bleeds or mini-strokes. If you miss the mark, the book offers exercises that can help with balance, as well as the advice to try a tai chi class. Why? Because a study of tai chi practitioners in their late 60s found that their stability was particularly strong—in the 90th percentile of the American Fitness Standards.
- Just get physical.
One study of 38- to 60-year-old women found that exercise reduced the onset of Alzheimer’s by an average of 9.5 years. That’s a good enough argument for me.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.