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

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...

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 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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  1. Erin October 20, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    This is all good news for me – my brain should outlast the rest of me! Great post, as always.

  2. Patricia October 21, 2010 at 5:21 am #

    I eat lots of salmon, grind flax seeds into meal and put it on everything and take a vitamin…but some days my brain is just dull…My kids bought me a hand held DS player and the game brain age I and II…when I have an important thinking task coming up, I play sudoko on it or one of the games and II even has a game which helps me sleep in those bad menopause moments. I know I am naming a brand here and I have recommended this on my blog too, because it really works at getting the engines going and calming them down – without drugs or any kind of stimulate substance….I felt dull and flat without this little push…also playing a card game, keeps numbers fresh in my mind.

    And I started a book group to get a group of women who did not read – but exercised huge amounts and worried about their bodies aging using their minds more…and gave me some social time with others in a fun/ none working experience.

    I think this is vital…especially for women because their peak of creativity is about age 65 to 75…I really want to be at the top of my game!

  3. Hilary October 22, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Hi Delia .. I couldn’t think of retiring or stopping in my early sixties .. the brain is way too involved with life. Walking, biking and keeping the tendons supple – let alone anything else .. too true .. then we’re doing it out of habit. # 3 couldn’t agree more .. interaction is essential.

    I totally agree with you .. as long as we’re not obsessed .. and can stop, and just ‘do’ what we need to do, open our minds to interesting sites we find (being here for one) .. Personally I’ve learnt so much .. access to getting questions answered and checking interesting information is fantastic .. A chap who’s just had triplets .. said he needed his mind stimulating .. so I gave him some sites to look at yours too .. but also TED – those lectures are incredibly interesting about ranges of subjects, projects, ideas we might not hear about ..

    Fish .. delicious & a really good mixed diet .. so our food is varied – too much of a good thing is no good.

    Thanks Delia .. good points the brain is a muscle and it too needs its exercise, its input, its nutrition .. etc .. Yes – Twitter .. my nearly next move! Cheers – Hilary

  4. GingerR October 22, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    I wouldn’t under rate being born to parents who had brains and bodies that remained active over a long life!

    • delialloyd October 22, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

      nor would I! thanks for dropping by, Ginger. @patricia=love your book group idea…well done! @hilary-agree on Ted. Really cool stuff there. Thanks all!

  5. Cecilia October 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    Very interesting…as I was reading this list it dawned on me (partially) why the Japanese enjoy such longevity. When I was living in Japan I found it *very* easy to do all 5 on your list. In fact, the country is set up so that you don’t have much choice but to walk or to eat fish or to be on the internet all the time. Since moving back fish has been harder to come by (relative to Japan) and we now drive EVERYWHERE. Good reminders and I know I need to start sooner rather than later ;-)

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