Aging brings with it a host of life changes, from how our bodies work to how people interact with us. It’s typical to lose some mental sharpness over the years. In fact, some studies suggest that people’s mental skills can begin to dull in their late 20s, with a steeper decline in their 60s and beyond.
These mental skills are our most powerful tools for keeping our independence and having a satisfying life in our golden years. This may be especially important if we live alone or with diminished social interaction in an aging in place program.
Many of the challenges we face as we age are actually the same as we put effort into all of our lives. We sharpen up to react quickly in a crisis, and to come up with the right words when talking. We put effort into dividing attention between different tasks, and to perform tasks step by step, as well as placing awareness on listening and comprehension.
Memory is something we have to focus more on as we age and accumulate more memories, to remember past events and to commit something new to memory. We deal with problem-solving strategies, and use mathematical and technical skills. It’s only as we age that we have to think more deliberately about keeping all these faculties well tuned. So what should you be doing to keep these skills sharp?
Agile Minds Keep Moving
Physical activity, especially outside, is great for the body and mind. Even a brisk 15-minute stroll in the park flushes your brain with oxygen, lowers stress levels, and boosts your mood. People who exercise regularly can enjoy an improved memory and may think more clearly about novel problems.
Any activity will do, but aerobic workouts like dancing or jogging have the greatest benefit. Remember to talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen.
Healthy Diets, Healthy Brains
A balanced, nutrient-rich diet gives your brain the building blocks it needs to function at its best. Remember that water is part of your diet – between 17% and 28% of older adults experience dehydration. Some of the first symptoms are poor alertness and fuzzy thinking.
Try to maintain a healthy weight and healthy blood pressure as well. This will lower your chance of stroke and ischemic (mini) stroke, which are some of the biggest contributors to cognitive decline in seniors.
Do you need to follow a specific diet? Not really. A lot of studies have focused on the Mediterranean and DASH diets. However, if you’re eating produce, lean protein, and healthy fats and are going easy on the treats, you’re on the right track.
Build Brainpower with Friendships
Research suggests that people who socialize more have a lower risk of developing dementia. Why? Interpersonal relationships act like a brain workout. You stimulate your mind by meeting new people in new places. Communication skills are built as you talk and debate other points of view. Social activities like senior classes and volunteering increase self-sufficiency and instill purpose. Finally, a strong social net helps people bounce back from brain-draining depression.
Quality is more important than quantity here. You’ll see more benefits from a close circle of friends than a long address book of people you haven’t talked to in a year. If you’re like many Americans who are planning on aging in place in the final home that you buy, having a social life will be very important.
Ban Stress and Embrace Sleep
High stress and resulting poor sleep wreak havoc on the brain. In fact, people of all ages will experience short-term cognitive decline when they’re bombarded with long-term stress. Poor sleep causes your ability to remember, learn and function to plummet.
It’s productive to relax before bedtime with habits and routines, such as avoiding electronics for an hour before bed, spending that time reading or catching up with loved ones. Sipping a hot, caffeine-free beverage, taking a bath, meditation or prayer are all habits of lifestyle that prove valuable at any age. You can set your medical alert system or smart watch to give you reminders at the right time.
Physical routines are good too, with gentle stretches to work out the knots in your shoulders, cuddle time with a pet or person. Some people keep a gratitude journal of good things that happened today, or vent their stress into a worry journal, to be set aside deliberately before sleep.
Learn Something New
Learning new skills and hobbies challenges your brain on multiple levels, from processing information to memory building and beyond. Look for skills that require you to actively engage. Two of the most effective ones are learning languages and playing an instrument.
Picking up a second language isn’t the easiest task in the world, but it enhances your brain’s elasticity and helps you process information faster. Think you missed the boat because you didn’t learn as a kid? Think again! Even seniors can get the basics down. Some of the easiest languages for English speakers to pick up include Spanish, Italian, French and German – a European vacation may be in the cards.
Learning to play a musical instrument stimulates minds of any age, helping seniors ward off a decline in speech and listening skills. Dust off your old skills if you once played an instrument, or begin from scratch with one of the more easily learned instruments, such as harmonica, bongo drums, recorder, ukulele or tambourine.
Cognitive Training, Your Way
There is no one special habit or technique that keeps aging minds sharp. Research suggests that a combination of activities repeated over time will slow down cognitive decline and may even reverse it.
You have a buffet of fun hobbies and health-boosting lifestyle changes that can all add up to a sharper mind. As jogging becomes too arduous, donate your running shoes and take up yoga instead, or swap something else in. Load up your life’s plate with many helpings of what you like, investing in a richer, mentally sharper life in your golden years.