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Brain Fitness: Four Strategies to Keep Your Wits with Aging

brainsHowever magnificent one’s earlier accomplishments, getting older can be a humbling experience. Loss of peripheral vision and depth judgment, lessened hearing acuity, decreased sensitivity of taste buds, stiffened arteries, declining bone density, a less efficient heart pump, reduced lung capacity, wrinkling of skin, reduced muscle strength and, for some, loss of hair are a few of the physical changes that are biologically predetermined.

The aging process also brings social and emotional losses. As we age, parents and older relatives die, leaving us feeling orphaned and adrift. Some of our friends grow frail and die. And the loss of a spouse is a particularly hard blow. Perhaps most devastatingly, some of us outlive our children. Grief and sadness are normal reactions to these losses, and we cannot dismiss these feelings as trivial.

Without question, the physical and emotional losses that accompany aging are difficult to cope with. Even more worrisome is the loss of mental acuity. A diminished or disappearing sense of self is a common fear among seniors.

The fear is well founded. “In the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability, with depression and anxiety accounting for a significant percentage of the disorders,” according to Professor Barbara J. Sahakian, FMedSci at the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry and the Medical Research Council/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute. And based on her research, Professor Sahakian asserts that 40 percent of the individuals with dementia are unaware of their condition.

But all is not lost! Here’s the good news: The notion that mental acuity inevitably declines with age has been debunked by researchers’ discoveries on the neuroplasticity of the brain. Indeed, old dogs can learn new tricks. The adult brain can be rewired throughout life if we are willing to practice these four successful aging strategies:

1. Exercise your body. Exercise may be as close as we will come to finding the fountain of youth. Besides lifting our spirits, staying physically active improves our ability to plan, focus and shift quickly between tasks. Working out also triggers a “positive and energizing outlook” that may improve memory and decision-making skills. And exercise encourages the growth of new brain cells (a process called neurogenesis). Researchers who’ve studied the link between exercise and mental acuity report that “maintaining an intellectually engaged and physically active lifestyle promotes successful cognitive aging.”

Our bodies are forgiving. Even if we haven’t exercised regularly for years, it is never too late to start. And it is never too late to enjoy the benefits of exercise. As one researcher succinctly reports, “Older adults who participate in fitness training and physical activity benefit from significant improvements in their brain structure and function.”

Seniors in record numbers are participating in sports from archery and badminton to basketball and bowling, from racquetball and softball to swimming and tennis. And age is not a barrier. George Blevins and John Donnelly were over 100 years old when they competed in sporting events for bowling and table tennis, respectively.

2. Engage with others. However community is defined, being a respected and valued member of a community helps keep us mentally sharp. Engaging in activities with others-visiting friends and family, attending church, dining out, traveling, doing volunteer work or being involved with charitable groups-is an antidote for loss of mental acuity. Strong ties to others can even increase longevity. After reviewing nearly 150 studies on longevity, researchers concluded that “stronger social relationships were associated with a reduced risk of death of 50%.”

3. Express your talents. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is quoted as saying, “The world is hungry for our help and our love.” In the second half of life, we have the unique opportunity to bring our authentic and wholehearted self to our chosen tasks and build our legacy. Dr. Paul Ward, a researcher and consultant on purposeful living, says, “Finding something to live for is an essential requirement to a happy and fulfilling life,” and this sentiment is no less true for seniors than for those beginning their careers. We don’t have to write a bestseller or become a Pulitzer Prize winner; rather, we simply need to bloom where we’re planted. And Margaret Mead tells us that “if you associate enough with older people who do enjoy their lives, who are not stored away in any golden ghettos, you will gain a sense of continuity and of the possibility for a full life.”

4. Experience the moment. Resolve to live in the here and now. Give attention to each passing moment. Ignore distracting thoughts and become mindful of what you are tasting, feeling, smelling, hearing, feeling and seeing. When you go for a walk, look around. Enjoy nature in all its glory.

Researchers tell us that by hitting the mental pause button, by stepping into the present moment and by becoming more mindful, we slow the aging process. In one study, researchers measured telomeres, which are bits of DNA protein at the end of chromosomes, in women ages 50-65. The length of telomeres tells how fast a person is aging.

The researchers compared the length of the telomeres in women who engaged in mindfulness with the length of telomeres of women who reported a tendency to engage in wandering thoughts and concluded that “people who reported as being more focused in the present moment had longer telomeres.” Moreover, “a more focused mind also leads to less cell ageing whereas a wandering mind accelerates biological ageing.”

Brown University researchers recently documented the underlying neurophysiological mechanism that explains two powerful benefits of mindfulness-more effective chronic pain management and lessened depression-that could be particularly useful to seniors.

Dr. Marty Cottler, a psychologist who trains his clients in mindfulness, says, “Even as our bodies inevitably age, our brains and minds can help us rejuvenate. Our natural and normal tendency is to drift off into thinking about the past and the future. With gentle effort, we can guide our attention back to the present. By practicing the simple skills of compassionate-mindfulness, of being aware of whatever we are experiencing in the present moment with an attitude of acceptance, this moment and then this next moment, we reinvigorate ourselves.”

The myths about inevitable mental deterioration with aging are falling by the wayside. Instead of being put out to pasture at age 65, seniors are increasingly playing diverse roles in society as workers, family members, business owners, caregivers, volunteers and consumers.

Even the notion of how long humans can live is being challenged. In her book, 100 Plus, futurist Sonia Arrison predicts that we are entering the “golden age of aging.” Arrison argues that this generation is on the cusp of living longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives and that the first person to reach 150 years of age is already alive. If her prediction is correct, we’ll want more than ever to keep our wits while aging.

Photo: Liz Henry on Flickr.