How to Remain Mentally Young

Old age is often associated with wisdom because of the vast number of things seniors have experienced. There’s a scientific explanation as to why our elderly loved ones always seem to have endless knowledge and give the best advice. According to neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, PhD, seniors have “millions and millions of little social scenarios and facts” recorded in their brains that can be recalled at any time, and “are much better synthesizer[s] and integrator[s] of that information.”

However, many seniors fear that they will succumb to cognitive impairment and memory loss as they age. Today, 47.5 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, and that number is expected to nearly triple by 2050 due to increases in life expectancy. While these numbers are high, it doesn’t mean that memory loss is inevitable for aging seniors. In fact, significant memory loss is not a normal part of aging; the brain can produce new cells at any age. Lifestyle habits can have a huge impact on brain health. Just as with any other muscle in the body, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Recent studies show that one of the best ways to remain mentally young is mental exercise and stimulation.

Merzenich said that the brain is a “learning machine” that can be trained to act like it did at a younger age using exercises of the mind. He developed a computer-based program that works with language and hearing to improve the speed and accuracy of how the brain processes information. Over time, exercises move faster to keep the user challenged. Other programs similar to Merzenich’s exist, and although none have yet been approved by the FDA as a treatment for cognitive impairment, an increasing number of studies say these programs could help slow down typical brain aging and treat dementia.

These studies have also found that the brain is highly adaptable, and if asked to learn, it will. Seniors can try computer programs as mentioned above to remain mentally young, or they can they can do other activities like Sudoku, crossword and jigsaw puzzles, learning a new language, building a model airplane, or playing a new instrument. “Anything that closely engages your focus and is strongly rewarding,” Merzenich said.

Another method that studies have shown is effective in remaining mentally young is physical exercise. Arthur Kramer, exercise and brain-health researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said aerobic activities like walking, riding a bike, or swimming enhance neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to grow neural and blood flow pathways in response to stimulation and learning. “Anything that sustains your heart rate at 65 percent of its maximum capacity or greater for up 30 minutes appears to be neuroprotective and will decrease your chances of getting other diseases too,” Kramer said. The more neural pathways the brain has stored, the better it can respond to strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, or head traumas from falls, according to Kramer.

Mark McDaniel, PhD, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, suggests a regimen of both aerobic exercise and weight training for the best results. McDaniel said that exercise increases capillary development – something that declines with age – which provides blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and said there is strong evidence that “exercise may forestall some kinds of mental decline.”

Along with mental stimulation, exercise, and a healthy diet, there are other factors seniors can keep in mind to remain mentally young.

Don’t Stress It

A challenge may be good for the brain, but overdoing it and adding stress to one’s life can be detrimental. Jeansok Kim of the University of Washington said that traumatic stress is bad for your brain cells. Stress can, “disturb cognitive processes such as learning and memory, and consequently limit the quality of human life,” Kim said. To eliminate stress, seniors can try physical exercise and calming activities like yoga. When taking on new activities, it’s important not to get too busy and to set aside relaxation time.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Getting enough sleep will not only keeps seniors physically healthy, but mentally sharp as well. In a study by Harvard Medical School, a good night of rest doubled participants’ chances of finding creative solutions to math problems the following day. The researchers theorized that the sleeping brain is “vastly capable of synthesizing complex information.”

Stay Social

Staying socially engaged has been proven to decrease the risk of dementia and depression. A study by Robert Wilson of Rush University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found that those who were lonely were more likely to develop dementia. Wilson studied a group of 80-year-olds with no signs of dementia and assessed their loneliness, memory loss, and confusion levels every year for four years. For every one point increase on the loneliness measurement scale, the risk of developing dementia increased 51 percent during that period. “Our results are consistent with other studies which show that negative emotions are related to the development of dementia and cognitive decline in old age,” Wilson said.



Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor. 

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