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.
Does this mean you have to flirt with senility when you get older, become forgetful and inevitably start fading toward dementia? Not at all. A study from the University of California and Columbia University concluded that people in their 60s and 70s may lose some mental acuity as their ablity to process information slows down, but seniors still beat out 20-somethings in many aspects of intelligence because of the greater knowledge they've acquired through experience, culture and education.
We know old age can bring on forgetfulness, lack of focus and those all-too-familiar senior moments. But Bruce Grierson, in his book “What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives”, looked at a number of senior athletes, including 93-year-old track star Olga Kotelko, and discovered five key rules for keeping our minds sharp as we get older:
Education matters. There is evidence that time spent in a classroom correlates with better brainpower, as post-secondary education promotes habits of lifelong learning. 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, evidence suggests that being bilingual protects people from dementia, and the earlier the second or third language is learned, the more it protects the brain in later years.
Commit to lifelong learning. Tackling crossword puzzles, card games, computer simulations and other activities that stimulate the brain can sharpen cognition in certain ways, especially if you have to retain certain facts in your memory while processing new information. Sudoku is a good candidate for improving your thinking skills, especially if you keep laddering up the level of difficulty to a point where you're consistently being challenged.
Do something different. Solving puzzles and playing cards certainly helps keep you active and alert. However, many pursuits such as reading the paper or doing crossword puzzles may become routine, using familiar pathways in your brain. Sometimes stretching your brain requires you to do something different. 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 idea is to break your usual habits, and force your brain to look at things a little differently.
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, track star Olga Kotelko took a battery of cognitive exams, and tested out as someone at least 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 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. The Mayo Clinic studied a group 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.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.