My friend Betty is one of the most impressive seniors I've ever known. At 88, her voice is strong and her heart is young, and she seems to have as much energy and enthusiasm as she did in 1982, when I first met her. She exercises, goes out with friends, gardens, pays her own bills, follows the news, and is constantly reading and asking questions. How does she stay so sharp? "I guess I'm just a curious person, kiddo," she laughs.
But living the way Betty does — always learning new things, and staying busy with friends and favorite activities — is exactly what the experts say can help keep our thinking skills sharp. "Cognitive and social engagement have been shown to be protective against cognitive decline, whereas hearing loss, depression, and social isolation are associated with cognitive decline," says Dr. Kathryn Papp, a neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
How it works
Dr. Papp says we don't know the exact reasons why mental and social engagement protect our thinking skills, but we do have some ideas. "Until the mid-1990s, we thought that people were born with however many brain cells they would die with. We now know that the growth of new cells — a process called neurogenesis — occurs throughout life, even in older age," she explains.
It turns out that the human brain has a great potential for something called neuronal plasticity, or in other words, being highly malleable. It appears that challenging our brains — for example, by learning a new skill — leads to actual changes in the adult brain. "It may create new connections between brain cells by changing the balance of available neurotransmitters and changing how connections are made," says Dr. Papp.
Being socially engaged may help fend off social isolation and depression, both of which have been linked with a decline in cognitive functioning later in life. Having good social support also reduces stress, another thing that we know has a negative impact on thinking skills.
A healthy lifestyle is also associated with neurogenesis, especially getting enough sleep, avoiding overeating, and the grand poobah of them all: exercising. "Researchers have found that physical exercise leads to the release of cellular growth factors that are important for neurogenesis," says Dr. Papp.
And this combination of growth factors and new brain cells that comes from healthy living, challenging the brain, and staying socially connected in a meaningful way may actually help protect the brain or keep it more resilient against changes that cause dementia.
Start your engine
What's the easiest way to rev up your thinking skills? Start with mini-challenges for your brain:
- Brush your teeth with the hand you don't usually use.
- Take a different route to work or the store.
- Eat a bite or two of dinner with your eyes closed.
- Listen to a new kind of music.
- Do 60 seconds of jumping jacks (or any physical activity).
- Sit in a different spot in your house or at a favorite restaurant.
"These require the brain to do some work, because it's encountering something it hasn't experienced before," says Dr. Papp.
You can also look for activities that incorporate brain stimulation, physical activity, and social engagement, such as:
- learning to play a sport or game (tennis, ping pong, golf)
- learning to dance (try the cha-cha, the rumba, or the merengue)
- taking a class on planting flowers or vegetables
- learning tai chi, which has been shown to boost thinking skills.
If physical activity isn't possible, consider taking a class in
- painting (start with watercolors, then move to oils)
- piano, flute, or guitar
- writing short stories (or your memoir)
- flower arrangement
- knitting or crocheting (handy for holiday gifts!)
- a new language.
Or you can simply take part in any new activity that you find interesting, such as:
- volunteering at a local charity
- exploring a new city
- joining a book club
- trying out a new restaurant or new type of food
- becoming a museum docent
- helping out at a local school or day care
- joining a collector's club (dolls, stamps, memorabilia).
"The best activities will be the ones that you find enjoyable," says Dr. Papp. And just like it's important to stick to a medication or exercise regimen, you'll have to stick to a pattern of always learning, just like my friend Betty, to reap the benefits. "I just love asking questions, and hearing people's stories," she says. "I never want to stop learning."
She would have made a great reporter, that one. But I'm glad that I get to be the one to share the news flash here, which is that staying sharp mentally boils down to using your brain and your body, no matter what your age.