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19th Apr 2018

7 Tips for Keeping Your Mind Sharp as You Age


The human brain changes throughout our lives more than any other organ in our entire body. From early childhood development through adulthood, the brain is undergoing almost constant adaptation. While your brain’s volume typically peaks in your 20s some areas may still not be fully developed until your mid-30s. In so many ways, the way the brain works remains a mystery, and though researchers have learned a great deal about its capacity and its patterns, there is still much more to unveil.

As we age, it is common to experience subtle changes in the mind. These often have to do with memory. It may become more difficult to remember the name of a colleague. Losing track of your keys or eyeglasses can occur with more regularity. Or you might simply find that ideas and words don’t come to you as quickly and readily.

While these are normal parts of the ageing process, they may, in fact, be emphasised by our collective attention to them. If you’ve ever found yourself having a “senior moment,” or if you have claimed “my memory’s not what it used to be,” you’re probably associating a momentary brain lapse with age. We as a society tend to view memory problems as part and parcel of getting older, and though there is some truth to this, most memory changes are nothing to worry about and are not indicative of any serious problem. Research also shows that changes in brain function vary widely from individual to individual.

Still, as you advance in years may find you’re wanting to work on keeping your mind sharp. There are plenty of ways to do this, from improving your lifestyle habits to incorporating daily games and exercises. If you want to maximise your brain’s prowess, here are some tips for doing exactly that----whatever your age.

What Happens to the Brain as We Age

There are some general changes that occur in the brain as part of the ageing process.

  • Certain parts of the brain’s mass begin to shrink. This happens in the frontal lobe and hippocampus, those parts of the brain related to learning/acquiring new memories and higher cognitive function. This decrease in mass tends to start around the age of 60 or 70 years.
  • The brain may produce fewer quantities of chemical messengers with age, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These reductions may play a role in declining cognition and memory, and can sometimes be responsible for contributing to depression.
  • Communication between neurons (nerve cells) may be decreased in certain areas of the brain. The myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibres may deteriorate, contributing to this slowing neural activity. Slower neuron communication can yield delayed processing (such as taking a longer time to remember the word you’re thinking of!).
  • As you age, the brain is less able to absorb valuable brain-enhancing nutrients.

Put more plainly, the ageing process can cause certain irritating changes to occur!

"What was that man’s name?"

Decreased blood flow in the frontal cortex tends to affect verbal fluency, making it tougher to find the word you want when you want it. You might find you have increased difficulty recalling basic bits of information such as names and numbers. Your mind has to work harder to retrieve the information it has stored away. It’s still there, but a bit less accessible.

"I can’t do everything at once!"

As you age, multitasking can become more challenging, due to the slowing of neural processing. "Executive function" also decreases, making planning and organising activities more laborious.

Elderly lady reading a bill

You may need new approaches to remembering things as you age.

"I used to learn so much faster!"

Committing new information to memory doesn’t happen as quickly in one’s advanced years. As kids, we seem to learn and pick up new skills at lightning fast speeds. By late adulthood, this dramatically slows down. (But it doesn’t mean we still can’t learn plenty of new information. Many experts say the plasticity of the brain, or its ability to change, actually increases as we get older!)

"I can’t believe I forgot that appointment!"

While you might have the fact of an appointment stored away in your memory, you might not have that memory triggered in the same way by your brain. Older adults may need to put different strategies in place to jog a memory and produce a reminder.

Sound familiar? If any of these things have happened to you, don’t be concerned. Such “mind slips” are completely normal in the ageing population. Memory studies have shown that approximately one-third of healthy older people experience some difficulty with declarative memory (memory of facts, data, or events). However, on difficult memory tests, a significant number of 80-year-olds performed equally well as people in their 30s. The mind may be less quick in our later years, but it’s still mighty powerful.

Should I Be Worried?

Nearly all of us will face some memory challenges as we age. But when do you need to be more concerned about Alzheimer’s? Common problems, such as misplacing your car keys or forgetting something at the store, are the expected kind of memory troubles. If these happen occasionally, there generally isn’t much cause for concern. Signs of more substantial cognitive problems are often those impacting “procedural memory” (knowing how to do things) such as forgetting how to drive.

Significant memory loss or gaps such as these can point to potential concerns, so speak with your doctor if you’re experiencing major memory loss or personality-related changes. This guide from Harvard Health Publishing offers helpful examples of signs and symptoms to keep an eye out for.

Maintaining a Keen Brain: The Basics

While you might have a momentary “mind slip” now and again, there is an abundance of ways to brighten and polish up your mind. Before we dive into our 7 ways to keep your mind sharp as you age, let’s focus on one important point. This one idea will affect you mentally, physically, and emotionally, so it’s vital not to ignore. That precept is:

Keep a positive mindset.

A number of experts find that myths about ageing can actually hinder the memory or add to its decline. Studies have shown that older learners perform worse on memory-related tasks when they are exposed to negative stereotypes related to ageing and memory. When they are confronted with positive messages, on the other hand, they perform far better. Thus, it’s important to surround yourself with good influences and to wean out harmful ideas about memory preservation.

At the same time, be positive with yourself. If you feel that your memory function is not within your control---perhaps you believe yourself to be subject to the whims of old age, for instance---you may be less likely to actively work to enhance your memory skills. This negative or complacent attitude could lead to a lack of effort and thus contribute to cognitive decreases. Research time and again has demonstrated that those with a measure of self-efficacy (individuals who believe in their ability to do something) indeed perform better. If you believe it---you can do it! Keep your self-confidence high and put affirming energy out into the world.

Tips for Keeping Your Mind Sharp as You Age

Maintaining an active and agile mind is up to you. Here are 7 ways to boost that brain.

1. Adopt---or continue---healthy habits.

Your brain health has so much to do with your physical wellbeing. It’s more important than ever to stick with positive and healthy habits. These include getting adequate sleep, following a balanced diet, and reducing your alcohol consumption.

There are two more wildly beneficial things you can do:

Quit smoking and stay physically active.

Smoking brings with it a myriad of possible negative health effects, but it specifically can inhibit operations in your brain. Smoking decreases the amount of oxygen which reaches the brain, meaning your brain functions at less than full capacity. Smoking is also linked to a faster shrinking of your brain’s cortex and more rapid memory loss. Stopping your smoking habit could be a major step towards enhancing your brain health.

As for exercise, this is an essential part of mental fitness. The journal Neurology completed a study of around 700 individuals in their early 70s. The results showed that those with a more active lifestyle displayed less anatomical brain shrinkage and higher cognitive function compared with those who had not lead very active lives.

You don’t have to go crazy with workouts. Even moderate exercise like a daily walk can improve memory and augment brain health. Find something you love and keep doing it. Breaking a sweat will help you in more ways than one.

2. Stay social.

Need an excuse to meet with friends or get out and about? Science will provide you with a compelling reason: Older individuals who regularly socialise and have larger social networks display a higher degree of cognitive function. This means that chatting with your mates or participating in group activities can improve your mind dramatically.

There are lots of ways to stay social, even as you age. Group fitness classes can be a great deal of fun and an easily available option. Many fitness classes are specifically geared toward seniors, so you can not only exercise your body, you can exercise your social muscles with other like-minded folks.

Couple walking in the bush

Moving your body can do wonderful things for your brain health & your social life.

As a retiree, you may have plenty of extra time on your hands. Why not donate some of that time to serving your community? Not only will you be doing something positive for the place you call home, you’ll also be interacting with your neighbours and building relationships.

Don’t forget about social media, either. In 2018, it’s easier than ever to build and maintain wide social networks using the Internet. You might be surprised at just how many of your friends are on Facebook. Take advantage of platforms like Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends near and far. But don’t spend all your time online---make plans to meet up with others live and in-person. There’s no substitute for those one-on-one bonding experiences.

3. Don’t be afraid to make things easier on yourself.

Let’s be honest. As you age, you’ll find that your mental energy gets taxed more easily. That’s ok! Instead of lamenting those changes, set yourself up for success. Don’t be afraid to make things easier on yourself by using tools and strategies that support you.

Invest in calendars, planners, shopping lists, and file folders. There’s no shame in some serious organisation! If you find that you have trouble remembering all that you need to do, make use of the wide variety of organisational tools out there. You can use your mobile device if you choose (there are many apps that help with appointment reminders, scheduling, and more) or go old-fashioned with pen and paper. Whatever you use, these items will be sure to help you save that valuable mental energy for other tasks----not for remembering your day-to-day to-do list.

How about memory aids? These are simple mental tools that assist you in improving your memory. One of the primary tools is repetition. When you have a piece of information you need to remember, go ahead and repeat it out loud, multiple times if necessary. Writing it down may help, too. Just repeating a fact a couple of times can work wonders with triggering the brain, helping turn short-term knowledge into longer-term memory.

Try it next time you meet someone new to help you recall their name. You needn’t repeat their name endlessly, but simply working it into the conversation (or better yet, include their name and their spouse’s) will embed it further into your mind.

Example: “It’s so great to see you again, Doris! How is your husband, James?”

4. Use new technology, like computers.

Research shows that mentally stimulating activities of varying kinds can serve to enhance cognitive function. One excellent example activity which most seniors should have access to is using a computer.

You definitely don't need to be a computer whiz to benefit from spending time on your laptop, mobile phone, or tablet. The Society for Neuroscience presented a study which tracked participants between the ages of 55 and 78. the research discovered that when those seniors spent one hour per day searching for information online---in other words Googling various questions and terms----this created actual changes in their brain activity as observed via MRI.

An author of the study, Dr. Gary Small stated that these online searches activated participants neural circuits, and in fact, did so within a period of just seven days. The scientists observed activity in the participant's frontal lobes, too which is significant as this is the portion of the brain in charge of problem-solving and memory.

For those older individuals who are unfamiliar with computers, getting adapted to the technology presents an opportunity for acquiring new skills and building up those neurons. In addition, improving your skills with computer technology can open up an entirely new world. Developing your skills will naturally increase confidence. For those new to the online world---sometimes referred to as “digital immigrants,” these new skills can increase their belief in their own abilities. Regular computer use also enables access to a much wider social network. Many seniors report being pleased that using their computer allows them to remain in touch with their grandchildren and other loved ones via social media. These social connections can contribute to overall quality of life---just another great reason to improve your computer savvy.

Couple on the computer

Your computer could be a powerful tool for sharpening your mind.

5. Exercise that brain.

If you've ever done a search for ways to keep your brain sharp with age, you probably come across some tried-and-true suggestions. There's a reason these keep appearing and it's because they serve a real purpose and they really work. What we're talking about are brain teasers, games, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and other mind-driven activities. These types of games or puzzles have been shown time and again to assist successfully with continuing mental acuity.

Can basic mental challenges really be so effective? Research seems to say yes.

One study pulled over 400 participants asking them how frequently they participated in activities which were considered “cognitively-demanding.” These included reading, playing games, writing, completing crossword puzzles, or enjoying group discussions. The participants were tracked over the next two decades and those who were more “cognitively engaged” were the least likely to develop issues of memory impairment.

Puzzles are a great tool because they challenge your brain to problem solve. Particularly when completing unfamiliar activities, your brain is forced to examine things in a new way. Playing music is also a great example of something that invigorates the brain. There have been thousands of studies on the undeniable benefits of studying, playing, and enjoying music, and these absolutely extend to the older generations.

6. Devote time to learning & trying new things.

Not all of us are interested in crossword puzzles, brain teasers, or Sudoku. That's okay. There are many more ways to participate in cognitively-stimulating activities. Essentially, these can include anything that places a focus on actively learning new things. From informational books to authoritative blog posts you read to classes you take. These all can have a profound effect on the sharpness of your mind; and of course, you're going to have a great time doing them, too.

Experts suggest, in fact, that while acquiring these new skills is a valuable aid to cognitive performance, it is vital that these activities are those which are personally enjoyable, meaningful, or rewarding to you. Those that are simply mind-numbing or feel like busy work or not going to have the same positive effect. Keep in mind though, that it's okay to tackle a new skill “just because.” You don't necessarily need a compelling reason to enrol in a course; you might want to learn Italian simply because you've always dreamed of doing so or because you have a particular love for pasta. What matters is that you are engaged in what you're doing. This is what makes learning so worthwhile.

7. Challenge your senses

Sharpening up your mind isn't just about mental exercise. As you probably know, the brain is responsible for an enormous number of functions within the body. To that end, it's important to give these functions a chance to work-out. The way to do this is by incorporating all five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. These are directly related to the brain and by making room for each of them in your daily life you're providing your brain with a valuable workout. From a scientific point of view, your senses may actually be far more powerful than thinking alone. A Dutch study showed that memories which incorporated a scent were much more likely to create an emotional trigger. Senses also activate different parts of your brain, so it is important to include all of them as much as possible.

With just a few habits added to your life, you could be safeguarding the health of your mind for the future. Which new mind-friendly habit will you adopt today?

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