Healthy Aging: Don't Leave Your Mind Behind

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Use it or lose it.

No doubt you’ve heard this advice often enough about your body and it’s physical abilities. And if, like me, you didn’t pay much attention to it when you were younger, I can tell you that you’ll wish you had by the time the next birthday looming on your calendar is the big 6-0. Trying to get your fitness back is a lot harder than hanging on to as much of it as you can all along.

But what’s even scarier than this physical decline are the mental changes that come with aging–starting with those wacky little episodes we like to refer to jokingly as “senior moments.” Like yesterday, when the combination to my bike lock somehow managed to escape from my brain for a good 30 minutes, leaving me stuck in the middle of nowhere with my bike chained to a tree and wondering whether I should start walking the 9 miles back home, or wait to see if the combination found it’s way back into my brain.

It struck me that forgetting this combination that I had used almost every day for over a year was a little less amusing than the usual problems of not remembering where I put my glasses, or forgetting why I had gotten up to go into a particular room. So, when I got home, I did a little internet research on mental decline, and guess what advice I found...

That’s right: Use it or lose it.

It turns out that there’s been quite a bit of research lately indicating that brain cells and mental functions respond to mental exercise the same way that muscle cells respond to physical exercise: they get stronger and more capable.

And the good news is that the kind of exercise your brain needs can actually be quite a bit of fun. According to the authors of the article linked above, virtually any kind of new learning can stimulate your brain to build its capabilities (even reading articles in SparkPeople’s Healthy Lifestyle Resource Centers). So can doing word or math puzzles, playing chess or checkers, taking up new hobbies and crafts that involve manual dexterity, learning to play a musical instrument (or a new song), practicing a new dance step–literally, almost anything you haven’t already done a million times before.

So, no more TV reruns for me. I’ve decided to do some learning about all the flora and fauna that inhabit my favorite exercise destinations (the coastal redwood forest and sand dunes), and see if I can identify them when I come across them on my daily excursions.

What sort of new interests or hobbies appeal to you?

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CHERYLHURT 5/11/2019
Great Report
REDROBIN47 4/21/2019
This is very good advice. It's so true. We need to continue to do things that challenge our thinking. Report
GETULLY 2/18/2019
That is why I keep knitting, more and more challenging things; to keep the arthritis at bay and calcification of the mind. I also love to do puzzles. Dearly Beloved and I try to walk every day but in the winter with crappy sidewalks it takes more planning. Report
KMF2019 2/11/2019
Good article, encouraging... I do Sudoku, have a wide range of computer games that I play (for variation), justifying the time I spend as being mental exercise. Just signed up for a new word/day to enhance my vocabulary. I do a lot of gardening, yard mowing, and winter care. I too had a mother who died with Alzheimer's and it is my greatest fear in life, and as I am experiencing more and more short-term memory, I am conscious of what I eat, and how much I move - and how much I exercise my mind!! I can still memorize (like Bible verses), I just don't retain them for very long. THANK YOU for the article. I always love Dean Anderson's writings!! Report
KEENFAN 12/31/2018
I take daily (free!) Spanish lessons on Duolingo. Report
DUSTIER58 11/25/2018
I retired a year ago, and decided I wanted to try some new activities. I am an avid crafter, so I joined the lical quilters guild, andstarted selling notecards, ceramics and dreamcatchers at craft fairs. I learned that there was woodshop for seniors—the instructor is 90!—and I am learning to refinish furniture. I am learning to play guitar, something I’ve always wanted to do. I am busier than I have ever been, and having a wonderful time! Report
JANEWATKINS 11/20/2018
I have noticed losing words that I have always used. I always prided myself on my vocabulary, so this has been difficult, frightening, and frustrating. I just signed myself up for a free online class on C. S. Lewis and his writings/philosophy, as one of the premier apologists of the last century. This is through Hillsdale College and is a not-for-credit class. I have always loved learning, so I hope-hope-hope that doing something that would stimulate my intellect might help with my everyday forgetfulness. Report
My FIL is a vet, legally blind, deaf and has problems with his hearing aid. I suspect he has dementia, but think that being deprived of all his senses he's withdrawn into himself and is interested in nothing. A mind is a terrible thing to waste---and sadly, his is wasted.My mother supposedly had Alzheimer's, but later it was classified as vascular dementia. She at least knew who everyone was, but could remember nothing short term. It was very sad. We tried to keep her busy and involved. She loved bingo til the end. Report
REDROBIN47 10/21/2018
My DH is 75 and has dementia. I worry about my forgetfulness also. This is a good article and is very informative. I do read a lot, do puzzles and play solitaire. I'm going to try some other suggestions too. Report
KITTYHAWK1949 10/4/2018
I like jigsaw puzzles and hope they help keep me sharp Report
JEANNETTE101 10/3/2018
My mother died two years ago of Alzheimer's at the age of 95. I enrolled her in an adult daycare after I started noticing more than ordinary forgetfulness. There she was with so many others just like her. She became engrossed in puzzles, artwork, exercise, dancing, life. Her doctor gave her two months to live five and a half years before she died. The constant brain activity is what I feel made her defy her doctor. So I do the same determined to live to 95 too! Report
NANHBH 9/20/2018
Great article. Thanks for the link to the research. Report
I make it a habit to play Trivial Pursuit everyday with POGO. It keeps my brain active. I also walk, and work in my yard. I do crafts, woodworking, and anything to keep myself going. If I live to my 90's I am going to go standing up. My first hour of the morning is my game, and my computer, and that's the only time I sit. Report
2DAWN4 7/11/2018
Thanks for the article! Report
2DAWN4 7/11/2018
Thanks for the article! Report
MIYAMO 5/30/2018
There are senior moments and there are serious memory losses. I don't mind an occasional senior moment but I fear a serious memory loss. Report
Learning a new language... it is harder than when I was young, but fun to figure out how the language works. And staying physically fit. Report
I am watching my mother sink into dementia. It isn't Alzheimer's, but a related plaque disease called cerebral amyloid angiopathy. It can't be prevented except by dying before the effects are fully realized. Which is what used to happen before modern medicine. Report
This is really scary. No one in my family had alzheimer's. My natural father is still alive at 84. My mother passed when she was 44 from heart disease. I have short term memory loss. I believe it is from fibromyalgia. That is one of many symptoms, I read a lot, work puzzles, and do word searches Report
I am too terrified of losing my senses. My mother had it and I had to finish her sentences for her, at times, she got so frustrated she would cry. Poor dear, shortly later she passed away to a better place. I try to work on word puzzles, sudoku and taking walks, but sometimes when I cant think of a word, I start to get a little worried mysel. Report
I'm like all of you - very scared of this happening to me. Both of my grandmothers died with dementia, my father's mirror twin died last summer with Alzheimer's. I do genealogy and have found a trend in both family lines for "senile dementia" and asthma.

My uncle & dad were in a medical study as my father does not have dementia (his twin was diagnosed at age 64 & lived 9 years more). Part of the study has both of them donating their brains for further study. I have yet to learn what was found from my uncle's brain.

I keep active with the genealogy & other studies to keep my brain moving. My husband & I are both firm believers in "use it or lose it". His 89 year old mother is now suffering from dementia, still living at home by herself, but with caretakers coming in daily to help out. Her short term memory loss is the problem, but her long term memory is still very active. She reads a lot and we have noticed that if it is politics - she remembers it - but not the other "fluff" as she calls it. Report
Anything that keeps me one step ahead of my three sons is worth learning! With three completely different personalities that is a lot of learning and activity! Report
I agree with those who continue to teach others as well as to do puzzles that challenge your vocabulary or logic. Report
I took care of my grandmother with dementia and she would just sit in a chair like a vegetable all day staring at the tv, but not even taking any of it in. Her and I were so close up until then when she didn't even know me any more. The only thing that she kept saying to me was "you're so pretty". It was really hard to see her like that and when she passed I thought that she was going to be much happier in heaven. I kept wondering what could have been done, if anything, to prevent such a thing from happening to her. Report
My father is in the late stages of dementia; so I've been reading up on the subject. Doing the things recommended to help keep a functing brain won't gruarantee against memory loss, but it sure helps stack the odds in your favor. Report
I agree with this article 100% Keep active, no matter what, or you'll wake up one day and find you lost it! Report
I went back to school at 54. It was frightening to find myself in college with kids as young as seventeen. The first week was overwhelming and I didn't think I could do it. My mind has never been so stimulated. I loved it! Graduated last summer (with both my kids) two year diploma in Social Services. I intend to keep taking courses to keep my mind working :) Report
Like some of you menopause is messing with my head. I find myself thinking of the hereafter-go into a room for something and try to remember what I'm here after! Honestly, Alzheimers and dementia are hereditary in my maternal grandmothers side. Of 22 children 15 have died from dementia and both their parents died from it. I saw my grandmother's decline and it's scary. I am determined to stay active, alert and hold on to my mental facilities as long as I can! Report
It's reassuring to I'm not the only non-senior who experiences those senior moments!
During the last year or so I have decided to re-wire my brain, as ambitious as this may sound.
I started solving Sudoku and Kakuro puzzles, and I'm gradually getting better at it!
I'm also learning more about brain functioning, mental health and disease, autism, and neurological conditions like migraines, and finding ways to incorporate my new knowledge into my life.
My plans for the next five years (42-47) include learning one new language (possibly Italian) and learning how to play an instrument (possibly the flute). I have it all written down, action steps and all! Report
There is a history of Alzheimer's disease in my family on both sides and that's a little scary. I do have a good memory but I worry when I have the occasional "senior moment". Although, I do believe those moments also happen when I am stressed, so I try not to freak out about it too much. Report
I don't get the rules on Sudoku(so it frustrates me) but I read alot and do other types of word puzzles (book and online types) and I get those forget moments as well and I'm only 46,(I'm shocked I wrote that out for all to see :)) they scare me but not as bad as when I 1st noticed them, so I believe there getting better!... Report
i love learning new things. i play various video games, do crossword puzzles, word search games, read something every day whether it's a book, magazine article about something that interests me or reading articles on spark. i also love doing things i've never done before or haven't done in a while. lately i've been getting back into yoga, cross stitch and now i'm getting my stepchildren interested in crafts. keeps my mind sharp becuz i have to pay attention to what i'm doing if i've never done something or if i'm making a new recipe or craft object i've never done before. Report
Great article! Report
I play brain games while I'm driving (same route 4 days/week); sudoku HARD b/c I'm not mentally organized even when I'm awake, teaching helps (tho I can't remember most students' names). I tease my memory by looking at a sequence of things then trying 5, 10, 20? minutes later to recall it.

When you think that, back in the Renaissance, kids as young as 11 were expected to recall a 2-hour sermon, word-for-word after one hearing, you KNOW we've lost something thanks to books, tv, computers.... Report
Amen to that! Report
I have many senior moments everyday. I also enjoy sudoko and other games. I'd hate to see how bad I'd be without doing them. Report
It is good to hear others comment about their "Senior moments". My mom had alzheimers and she didn't begin to lose her "mind" until she was in her middle 70's. Mom was very physically fit and walked 5 miles every day even up to the time we were forced into putting her in an alz unit. She begin to walk at night with the "sundowners syndrome"...she also kept her mind busy with crossword puzzles and word searches...but the inevitable eventually happened. It is horrible to watch someone who was so full of life to lose the "life spark" in their life and to look in their eyes as she progressively got worse and not see anyone at home there. It does make it hard when I have the "brain stalls" myself now as I always wonder in the back of mind if I am getting alz. I now have friends dealing with parents in the same situation as mine was and I just help to get them through the days and to enjoy their parent as they are at each stage. I find myself wanting to be more fit and healthy and also to work my brain more. So I too work crosswords and other mind games. Report
It is true you have to exercise your mind as well as body. I do logic problems, video games, the ones with puzzles in them, jigsaw puzzles, suduko, etc also help my grandchildren with school work and science projects. Get daily emails from Hubble and space. com.
Some of the medicines, i was taking, affected short term memory and long term memory. My mind still goes blank at times but not even 10% like it used to.
As far as remembering where I parked, that I can do. I just have to remember which car I drove. I have access to 4 to 6 vehicles but not all at the same time. I have driven as many as 4 different ones in a day according to what was available and what was needed. Some are trucks, some are the same color but different makes. This can be fun, the third time you've gone to Walmart with a different vehicle in an afternoon. First I remember where I parked at that run then I stand there and try to remember the vehicle. When people kid me "hey you forgot where you parked?" they are shocked when I say no just which vehicle I'm driving right now. Report
i am 63 barrel race my horse, teach jr. high, workout everymorning and i still have senior moments that i laugh and tell people my "moments" are stretching to "days"--it isn't easy --the road to living to l00 but i am going to keep "traveling" Report
The fact is that everyone forgets things at one time or another. Just don't get stressed about it as it makes it worse. Calm yourself down by saying a prayer or something. Stress is a major factor in memory health, I believe as well as getting enough sleep. Recently I read that sleep is a component to learning. When you are studying be sure to get a good night sleep to let the info sink in. I took care of my Dad who had Altzheimers and we never told him he had it. It took the stress facor out of the equation. He did very well and actually died of something else. He was a joy to all of our family. I have to admit, It was very trying at times. Especially when he would rearrange things in my house so I couldn't find anything. I prayed a lot. We all got through it. I didn't want strangers caring for him. I am so glad I made that choice. Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
Yep, a Senior Moment, I couldn'teven remember if I had clicked to earn my 3 points for this article and found out I had, I really thought I hadn't, oh well, I need to be more aware. At my age of 75, I worry about the "Senior Moments" catching up with me, but I took up quilting a few years ago and work on a project every day. Now I am reading and learning more with the Sparks articles and I do love Suduko. But my major anti "Brain Freeze" is reading the bible, it keeps my faith alive. So "Senior Moments or Brain Freezes" or not, I love my life. Report
I've been having these "senior moments" for years, forgetting what I was about to do, where the car is parked, what I was just about to say, etc. I've been reading, doing puzzles, etc. to keep the mind busy. Don't know if it's helped or not, but it's fun! Report
Wonderful article.. I take care of my two aging parents. Dad is 81 and has had many strokes and Mom is 80 with her own health problems. But they are both sharp as a tack. Dad gets up everyday and though he is on an electric wheelchair for most of the day, he does get off and try to walk around the house and outside close to his chair, he does small jobs like staining pieces of furniture or trying to build things, the thing is that he keeps busy. Momma on the other hand does things like lots of reading and doing crossword puzzles. They still maintain their own checkbook with few errors and like I said, very sharp people. I hope to be like them, and I see that keeping mind and body busy is important. Anna Report
I also feel a healthy body does yield a healthy mind, but Alzheimers does not care if you are thin or not. I forget all the time about stuff- it usually has to do with stress. I have had some real problems with my teenage son. Some people need to get out and see the world. My best friend who is nearly sixty- made a judgement of my son's girlfriend. I told her that she is part native american. My friend immediately sterotyped she might have hard life and a drinking problem, that is not a sign of a healthy mind either. The older she gets things like this come out which I never heard before. Report
When menopause hit I started forgetting things, my doctor suggested word puzzles, bowling, anything that required concentration. I may not always remember but just practicing concentration makes it alot easier to remember things these days! Report
Thanks for sharing. At my age I found that at times I do have a senior moment at works. I laugh about it because I use to laugh with my mother about it and tell her that you don't have to be very old to have the senior mements. Report
My "senior's moments" are mostly forgetting the names of friends and neighbors. Very embarrassing when I have to introduce them to someone new!

My strategy is taking courses, reading (a lot!) and doing new things. I've started yoga and Pilates classes for my body. A few years ago I took up ceramics and set up my own studio, then I moved on to glass. I'm amazed at what I can do and what I still want to do. I'm 62 and not planning to slow down in the near future! My DH and I play Scrabble. Report
Jack LaLanne is 93 and as sharp as you can find, but he works out every single day of his life doing swimming and weight training. A healthy body gives a healthy mind! Report
I've had success playing scrabble online. I used to be pretty bad but maybe its the combination of soduko, crossword puzzles, reading a book a month (I joined a bookclub at the local library) and challenging myself more at work that are helping me. Report