For Successful Aging, Exercise Your Brain Cells as Well as Your Body

In the past, it was thought that mental decline was inevitable with age. That decline is no longer accepted as inevitable. While there are a few specific losses associated with age, there are great differences among people, and there are now many centenarians who play bridge, read and are mentally sharp beyond the 100-year mark.


The best way to maintain mental sharpness is to not lose it. In fact, use it or lose it applies here too. While it may be tempting at times to withdraw from some activities, music, painting, poetry, sculpture, learning a language or anything new, writing, working on the computer, all keep your brain active. Just like the physical self, training in the later years can help restore some cognitive functioning, but the best way is to keep mentally active in the first place. If you have problems visually, look for big print books or use audiotapes, but don't drop those activities that are interesting and challenging for you. Complex mental activities are food for the brain. Don't starve it.

You can still learn something new at any age. You may learn differently, or need to have a little longer time to absorb the material, but you can learn. Perhaps it is more comfortable to take classes with Elderhostel among others of the same age range or at the senior center, but you are never too old to learn a new way of cooking, a new art form or anything else that sparks your interest.

A very interesting finding by the MacArthur Foundation on Successful Aging was that a sense of self-efficacy was key to continued mental sharpness. This goes along with recent findings that too much "care giving" can bring deterioration. It says to the individual, "You aren't capable, so doing this or that for you." Mentally sharp oldsters have a belief in their own ability to handle various situations. They believe they can handle life's problems and challenges. They are more interested therefore in learning and continue to participate in mentally challenging tasks and activities. Have all read about individuals who continued to work way into their 90's. Now, while the structure of going to work and the social support of fellow employees is important, a key factor here is the continued use of one's mental skills. And all witnessed the mental slide when an individual is put in assisted living facilities or a rest home, and the lack of mental stimulation is evident quickly.

Your choices for mental stimulation are endless, and no matter what your interests, there should be and are activities that you can enjoy. Whether it is simply arguing politics with your family, learning a new craft, joining a book club, researching your family genealogy, learning Chinese cooking, or continuing to play a musical instrument, something should appeal to you. Volunteer activities or paid work can also offer some stimulating opportunities. Tutoring youngsters certainly will keep you sharp, as will writing that long forgotten novel or learning the history of your favorite vacation areas. Perhaps you'll decide to learn the names or species of trees on your walking route. The options are vast.

Just imagine that your brain is like an engine with cogs, wheels and levers. If you don't start the engine and work the parts, it will deteriorate. The engine needs high-octane fuel, and it takes care to keep it going. Keeping your brain active, working the parts and using learning as fuel, will keep you reaching using your potential way into the future.

Yes, exercising your body does help your brain, but it isn't enough. Remember to exercise your brain cells too.

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