We know that the brain, like everything else in our bodies, tends to shrink as we get older. It starts in our early 20s when brain cells begin to die faster than they can be replaced. By the time people reach their 80s, they can summon up barely half as much brain power as they did in their 20s.
But does this mean we have to flirt with senility when we get older, become forgetful and inevitably start fading toward dementia? I hope not. I do remember I study I saw a while ago from the University of California. It said that people in their 60s and 70s lose mental acuity as their ability to process information slows down, but they still beat out 20-somethings in many aspects of intelligence because of the greater knowledge they've acquired through experience, culture and education.
In other words, what we lose in speed and agility we make up for in experience and perspective.
I just read a book by Bruce Grierson called What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives. Grierson looks at a number of senior athletes, focusing particularly on 90+ year old Canadian track star Olga Kotelko, to find out what keeps older people healthy and active and mentally acute. In poring over his advice and insights, I've isolated a few ideas for keeping our minds sharp as we get older:
Education matters. There is evidence that time spent in a classroom correlates with better brainpower, promoting habits of lifelong learning. According to the book, college graduates have denser brains than those without a degree, and brain density has been linked to a smaller decline in cognitive function, presumably because the more educated we are the more neural connections we have to back up the ones we lose. In addition, Grierson says evidence suggests that being bilingual protects people from dementia (if only I knew a second language), and the earlier the second or third language is learned, the more it protects the brain in later years.
Do something different. Yes, solving puzzles and playing cards keeps you active and alert. However, many pursuits such as reading the paper or doing crossword puzzles can become routine, using familiar pathways in the brain. Sometimes stretching your mind requires you to do something different. Here's the idea: If you're right-handed, try eating dinner with your left hand. Drive a different way to the mall, or listen to a different radio station. The point is to break your usual habits, and force your brain to look at things from a new perspective.
Get some exercise. Arthur Kramer, a cognitive psychologist, recruited test subjects between 60 and 80 years old who were committed couch potatoes. He put them on an exercise program, starting with 15 minutes of walking every day, and increasing to 45 minutes. After six months, he found the subjects' brains had grown by a measurable amount, and not just in the areas where memories are stored, but also in the frontal and temporal lobes where reasoning and sensory processing take place. Meanwhile, Grierson reports that track star Olga Kotelko took a battery of cognitive exams, and tested out as someone 20 years younger than her actual age.
Get plenty of sleep. One long-term study of 15,000 nurses, published in 2012, concluded that sleep deprivation can severely impact a person's memory capability, and even shorten life expectancy by up to two years. Why does sleep matter? For two reasons: First, a sleep-deprived person has a problem paying attention and experiences difficulty focusing on mental tasks. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.
Any of these methods will improve your brain function, but they work better in combination. Grierson cites a Mayo Clinic study of senior citizens who did brainteaser-like puzzles on the computer. That activity in itself improved their mental function. But when physical exercise, such as dancing or playing tennis, was added to the mix the seniors got an extra boost from the brain games. A study in Europe came to a similar conclusion. Researchers led one group of pensioners in cognitive training, and a second group in physical exercise, while a third group did both. On later intelligence tests, it was the third group that came out on top, with flying colors.
So I don't know about you; but I'm going to volunteer at my community college this afternoon, then this evening work up a sweat playing table tennis.
Oh, wait a second. Table tennis was last night . . . I was going to post this item yesterday. But I forgot.