“You are only as old as you feel” they used to say, and while there is some still truth to this statement, it turns out that it might be more accurate to say, “You are only as old as you think”.
Recent studies have indicated that the secret to a long and happy life may be as simple as to never stop learning. According to a news item issued by Harvard Health Publishing in August 2018, engaging in mentally stimulating activities may lower the odds of developing dementia right up to the end of your life.
In a study of 15,000 men and women in their seventies in China, researchers found that challenging your brain with activities such board games, puzzles, reading, and learning new skills appears to decrease the odds of being diagnosed with dementia more significantly than less mentally demanding activities such as shopping or watch television.
But is mental stimulation alone sufficient to keep your brain healthy in old age?
If you are over the age of 50 you have no doubt experienced the annoyance and frustration of entering a room to get something and then not being able to recall why you went in there in the first place or wasting ten minutes searching the house for your reading glasses only to discover that they were perched on top of your head the entire time.
Funny as these stories might be to tell at lunch (assuming you can remember them!) it can be quite disconcerting to be faced with the realization that your brain does not function the way it once did. But just because it does not function the same way, does it mean that your brain is exhibiting the early stages of dementia?
It turns out that there is a correlation between your overall level of physical fitness and how well your brain functions. According to Dr. Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain is to engage in physical exercise because moving your body not only boosts your mood and memory, it also protects your brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
This would imply that the brain needs a daily workout just like all the other muscles in your body in order to remain flexible and functional. But is physical exercise alone enough later in life or do older people see the most benefit from a mixture of mental and physical workouts?
The current research seems to indicate that older people benefit from a variety of activities. This does not mean that you need to do the Sunday crossword while you run five miles on a treadmill, but it does make the case for including a variety of activities in your daily routine. Just as “a body in motion tends to stay in motion”, experts think that people who adopt a lifelong habit of staying mentally and physically active tend to retain their ability to focus and remember things later life.
It also turns out that the energizing and positive mood effects of exercise can be felt after even a single exercise session, and a program of regular exercise actually changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology and function over time making your brain stronger and delaying the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
As with all matters relating to health and wellness, please be sure to discuss this research and all contemplated changes to your wellness regime with a trusted medical practitioner before embarking on a “mind-altering” wellness makeover. And if you do decide to give some of these ideas a try, be patient with yourself; it could take a while for your memory to noticeably improve … so maybe get a string for your reading glasses in the meantime just to be on the safe side.