Pick challenging leisure activities to keep your brain healthy. (Photo: Flickr user, hippie)
The aging brain
Apr 27, 2011 / 5:00 am
It's time we stopped dismissing middle age as the beginning of the end. Research suggests that at 40, the brain's best years are still ahead. Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging at George Washington University gives us ways to be healthy. He says his research shows that, the aging brain is more resilient, adaptable and capable than we thought. But that doesn't mean we can sit back and expect good things to happen. Research has identified several types of activity that can, if practiced regularly, help boost the power, clarity and subtlety of the aging brain.
Exercise physically. Numerous studies have linked physical exercise to increased brainpower. This is particularly true when the exercise is aerobic—meaning continuous, rhythmic exercise that uses large muscle groups. The positive effects may stem from increased blood flow to the brain, the production of endorphins, better filtration of waste products from the brain and increased brain-oxygen levels.
Exercise mentally. The brain is like a muscle. Use it and it grows stronger. Let it idle and it will grow flabby. So choose something appealing and challenging—and don't be surprised if, once you start, you want to do more. One of the programs I co-chair, the Creativity Discovery Corps, strives to identify unrecognized, talented older adults in the community. A 93-year-old woman we recently interviewed advised us that she might find scheduling the next interview difficult because she was very busy applying for a Ph.D. program.
Pick challenging leisure activities. Getting a graduate degree isn't the only way to keep your brain fit. An important 2003 study identified five leisure activities that were associated with a lower risk of dementia and cognitive decline. In order of impact (from highest to lowest), the winners were dancing, playing board games, playing musical instruments, doing crossword puzzles and reading. Risk reduction was related to the frequency of participation. For example, older persons who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a risk of dementia 47 percent lower than subjects who did puzzles only once a week.
Achieve mastery. Research on aging has uncovered a key variable in mental health called "sense of control." From middle age onward, people who enjoy a sense of control and mastery stay healthier than those who don't. The possibilities for mastery are unlimited, ranging from playing a musical instrument to learning a new language to taking up painting or embroidery. Besides improving your outlook, the sense of accomplishment may also strengthen the immune system.
Establish strong social networks. Countless studies have linked active social engagement to better mental and physical health and lower death rates. People who maintain social relationships during the second half of life enjoy significantly lower blood pressure, which in turn reduces the risk of stroke and its resulting brain damage. Social relationships also reduce stress and its corrosive effects, including anxiety and depression.
The brain is like the foundation of a building—it provides the physical substrate of our minds, our personalities and our sense of self. As we've seen, our brain hardware is capable of adapting, growing and becoming more complex and integrated with age. As our brains mature and evolve, so do our knowledge, our emotions and our expressive abilities. In turn, what we do with those abilities affects the brain itself, forging the new connections and constellations needed for further psychological growth. This realization should embolden anyone entering the later phases of life. If we can move beyond our stubborn myths about the aging brain, great things are possible. Successful aging is not about managing decline. It's about harnessing the enormous potential that each of us has for growth, love and happiness.
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