What are some ways to keep your mind sharp as you age?
My grandmother — who beat two different cancers before passing away at the ripe age of 95 — once told me her trick to staying healthy was simply walking at the beach, participating in her daily ‘wine o’clock’ ritual with neighbors, and lots of VapoRub. While this may not be a scientifically approved recommendation, there is an innate wisdom to her logic that we can all learn from in order to stay sharp while aging. Combining multiple of these activities can help you live a healthier and possibly more full life!
Here are a few ideas to keep that brain running smoothly:
Exercise Your Mind
The brain (our most essential organ) needs to be regularly challenged in order to continue to process information quickly as we age. Playing number or word-based puzzles can be an entertaining way of doing just that. Games like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, or even some science-backed apps, such as Lumosity, can be a fun way for you to maintain cognitive function and increase memory retention. Consistently working the mind through puzzles has been shown to delay the onset of dementia and slow the production of amyloid plaque to prevent Alzheimer’s symptoms. Challenging the brain in this way can also lead to general resilience while aging — as you feel more comfortable relying on your mind, you may be more open to new experiences with the confidence and ability to meet new challenges head-on.
Learn New Things
Like challenging your mind through puzzles, exploring new hobbies can support similar mental maintenance. The biggest key to exercising your mind is consistency. So, you may find new hobbies to be more entertaining and easier to commit to than the routine of a puzzle a day. The process of researching and practicing something new can be an exciting way to stimulate cognitive function and give you a sense of purpose. In particular, hobbies such as learning a new instrument, language, or computer skills can increase memory. Creative expression through woodworking, painting, or ceramics can also help relieve stress and deepen your sense of self.
Make New Friends
Aging-related declines in our bodies can often shrink our worlds and limit our capacity for new experiences — but putting yourself out there is important to maintain a healthy balance in life. Studies have shown that social isolation can increase dementia and cause other major health issues. While we may live in an increasingly isolated world, with alienating technology and pandemics making it harder to connect with the people around us, socializing doesn’t have to be as daunting as it may seem.
Whether you’re retired or not, working can be a fulfilling way to socialize. Picking up a job at your local bakery just for fun, volunteering for a cause you believe in, or joining a faith-based study group are rewarding ways to socialize and grow a deeper sense of purpose within a like-minded community. As my grandmother recommended, a standing happy hour with her neighbors is another way to get to know your community and have something to look forward to at the end of the day.
Eat With Your Mind in Mind
While I’m sure we’d all love to eat as we did in our teen years, back when our metabolism was at its peak and our minds were more elastic, eating for an aging mind is an important thing to consider. Following a Mediterranean-like diet, full of fresh food and healthy fats, can reduce the effects of aging. The Mediterranean diet consists of “plant-based foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices, are the foundation of the diet. Olive oil is the main source of added fat. Fish, seafood, dairy, and poultry are included in moderation. Red meat and sweets are eaten only occasionally.” (Mayo Clinic) Centering your meals around a handsome serving of veggies and lean proteins is recommended to keep your mind sharp and energy levels high.
The top recommendation to stay sharp by every doctor essentially…ever, is to stay active. Moving our bodies not only keeps our blood flowing properly, but keeps our muscles (including the most important one — the heart) strong and healthy. It also helps boost your mood, lower stress, reduce chronic pain, and increase overall cognitive function. Plus, you may get a spike in confidence from that rockin’ new bod!
Engaging in a balance of daily aerobic and anaerobic exercises for at least 30 minutes a day is important in keeping our brains razor sharp. “ Exercise improves memory by increasing molecular targets like the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This molecular factor increases synaptogenesis, forming new synapses that mediate learning and memory, making it easier to absorb information and form long-term memories.” (Life Sciences).
Walking, hiking, swimming, or cycling are activities light on the joints and great forms of exercise that can be done solo or with friends. Activities like dance, that require memorizing steps, are a powerful way to get some cardio exercise in while also challenging the mind. Things like pilates or yoga can help build strength and flexibility while providing a deep sense of relaxation. If you have any sort of limited mobility, this does NOT mean you can’t find suitable exercises to get your heart pumping, stretch your muscles, and build strength. Things like chair yoga, tai chi, water aerobics, or using resistance bands can all increase that blood flow and support a sharp mind. Check with your doctor before beginning new exercises about movements they recommend. Once you get the green light, it’s time to sweat baby!
Not all sleep is the same! Sleeping deeply, without the use of sleeping pills, alcohol, or other substances, is crucial to maintaining healthy brain function. The more physically and mentally exhausted you are by engaging in the above-mentioned activities, the less likely you’ll find yourself tossing and turning at night. Prioritizing relaxing habits to unwind before bed will help reduce stress and also help slow down that pesky runaway mind. Listening to calming music, meditating, and reducing screen time are all helpful additions to your nighttime routine. My grandmother’s secret weapon — Vapo Rub — was her way of integrating the calming effects of eucalyptus and mint oils into her nightly massage in order to relax her muscles and mind before sleep. Essential oils, lightly scented candles, or incense can have the same effects.
We recommend speaking to your doctor and/or physical therapist before trying any of these suggestions to check how your body may respond. If you are taking any medications or have any illness, it’s imperative you consult them ahead of time.