Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Keep Your Brain Active As You Age

October 20, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I had a senior moment the other day. I was talking to my daughter about my elementary school, and I started listing my teachers one by one. But when I got to fifth grade, I drew a complete blank. I could envision the lady perfectly – plump, jolly, liked to wear purple – and even remembered that her name began with an “F.” But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name.

I can be forgiven this lapse, of course. It was, after all, 35 years ago (cough.) But it was another sign that as we age, our memories aren’t quite what they once were.

In that spirit, here are five tips for keeping your brain active as you age:

1. Work. Pay no attention to all those French people behind the curtain, striking their hearts out because Nicolas Sarkozy is about to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. New research reported in the New York Times last week shows that postponing retirement is actually better for your brain. Coining the phrase “mental retirement” to capture what happens when your brain is no longer getting regular exercise, the study shows that retired people as a group tend to do less well on cognitive and memory tests than people who are still working.

2. Walk. But in case you’d still prefer to be living on the beach at 65 rather than toiling away in an office cubicle, be sure that you walk a lot in paradise. Another study out last week shows that walking at least six miles a week may be one thing people can do to keep their brains from shrinking and fight off dementia. Which is good news for me, even in my new-found hip, urban status as the owner of a collapsible bike. One thing that not owning a car really does is get you used to good, vigorous walks.

3. Be Social. Back when I wrote about five reasons to be optimistic about middle age, I referenced some new research showing that  – contrary to the long-held view that our brains get fixed in early childhood – circuits in the adult brain are, in fact, continually modified by experience. (See #1.) Turns out that one of the things that keeps the brain developing as we age is being social. In addition to getting out and meeting people, people who volunteer and help kids also seem to age better and help their brains.

4. Use the Internet. OK, this one is controversial, especially coming from someone who warned you not to get an e-reader lest it chip away at your capacity to engage in sustained, concentrated thought. But there are two sides to every story. And a lot of scientists – Harvard’s Steven Pinker, for one – think that far from damaging our brains as we age, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales. Colin Blakemore, a British neurobiologist concurs. As he notes – reacting to the prevailing “internet ruins our minds” thesis:  “At its best, the internet is no threat to our minds. It is another liberating extension of them, as significant as books, the abacus, the pocket calculator or the Sinclair Z80.” So by all means, grab that new Kindle, Grandma. And get a Twitter account while you’re at it..

5. Eat lots of fish. Many parents will be familiar with the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs) for brain development in utero and in young children. (Neurotic parenting confession #346b: Until my son – who was born allergic to just about everything – was two, we regularly spiked his rice milk with flax seed oil for precisely this reason.) But it turns out that these so-called “good fats” are also increasingly seen to be of value in limiting cognitive decline during aging. Fish, for example, is a great source of EFAs. Flax-soaked salmon, anyone?

*****

On Monday, I was over on http://www.PoliticsDaily.com talking about reform of the British welfare system.

Image: thyme salmon with leek coulis by elana’s pantry via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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