The Secret to Staying Sharp as We Age

By , SparkPeople Blogger
If you're lucky enough to live a long life, you hope it will be a healthy one. Diet and exercise are important for keeping your body in good shape. But what's the secret to keeping your mind in good shape too? Researchers are studying people who have lived past 90 without any signs of dementia, and what helps preserve their mental sharpness.

In 1981, researchers at the University of Southern California started the 90+ Study to look at mental acuity in the elderly. According to the study, "Evidence suggests that people who spend long stretches of their days, three hours and more, engrossed in some mental activities like cards may be at reduced risk of developing dementia." Now researchers are trying to determine whether or not these people are sharp because they are active, or active because they are sharp.

Research has found little evidence that diet and exercise affect the risk of dementia in people over 90. Mental activities like crossword puzzles and reading can help delay symptoms, as can regular social interactions (which also require brain power). It appears that some mental activities are more effective than others, and that activities with a social aspect (playing cards vs. reading a book) have the biggest impact on mental acuity.

My grandmother lived in a retirement community and was very active into her mid 80's. She walked regularly, played in a bowling league and met her friends to play cards once a week. A series of health problems forced her to give up those activities for a short period of time, and she never started back again. After that, her mental health quickly deteriorated. She began to isolate herself, and watching the Jerry Springer Show became one of her primary connections to the outside world. Needless to say, she started to lose touch with reality. My other grandmother just turned 90 and is one of the sharpest people I know. She goes to lunch regularly with her friends and buys and reads so many books she could start her own library. I think the combination of those two things (social and mental activities) has kept her brain functioning in peak condition.

What do you think? Have you seen examples of this in your own life? Do you plan to use activities like reading and games to keep your brain sharp as you age?

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This article really hits home for me. My grandmother is 92 and if you see her, you would not believe it. We have been blessed to not have to put her in skilled nursing home.
Last time I took her the DR, I was amazed to hear that her only complaint was arthritis.
She his my Queen and my idol. She knows it too. Report
Recently in our town an elderly couple passed away. They had been married for 77 years... The wife died first at age 102. The husband died at age 103---
Remarkable! Report
Speaking as a senior, I find that many things contribute to my mental health. There is a group that meets every Saturday at Starbucks for coffee. There is an age difference of 50 years ( of course that is not counting the new babies that arrived in the group). There are daughters, friends and sometimes granddaughters that meet. There are times there may be only two of us and other times others join us and we maybe increase to a much larger group. I also find I love to do handwork, read, and play games and puzzles on the computer. Through Sparkpeople I am also finding that to keep moving helps your mental health. Report
Wow, I never thought of that before. When I moved South, I joined a church that was full of super-sharp senior ladies . Bridge seems to be a religion among SC gentlewomen. and they don't miss their weekly bridge group unless they are hospitalized. Now I know their secret--and here I was foolishly thinking it was a daily nip of port like the sharp senior women I knew up North. Report
This is an excellent article I am almost 80 yrs old and excercise faithfully -Family visits and we visit often - Must revive my old canasta game for further brain stimulation also read alot. Thanks for the tips. Report
Live long and prosper. Report
My great-grandfather lived to just short of his 106th birthday. He stayed active both physically and mentally. He had a few health issues, but did not let them stop him. He walked every day, stayed very active in his church and ate healthy. He is an inspiration!!! Report
My mother turned 90 this past year. She reads, surfs the internet and goes to garden club meetings and travel log programs, etc. She decided she would like to learn German, so I sent her a course on CD for Christmas and she is loving it. I can only hope to be as sharp in my later years. Report
My father is 84 and has a pretty good memory. He has always started the day working the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. There is always crossword puzzle books at my parents' house as my dad works more than 1 puzzle on most days. My mom has never been into puzzles or reading and I am beginning to see her mind slowly go even though she is 5 years younger than my dad. I now find myself doing things like working puzzles and reading more as I want to have my dad's memory as I age. Report
I love this because these are wonderful things to be doing no matter what the age - we all need friends and family and games and tasks that make us think. Report
If that is the case, I am good to go. I read 1-2 books a week and play cards or other board games 3-4 times a week with my kids. Socializing is not a concern as I work in retail - it is my job to socialize. I hope this is all true. Report
I know first hand that social/mental activities work to our advantage. My mother is 98yrs old. She was very active socially until about 95. She read, watched the news, etc until her eye sight got very bad. She still tries to read but can't too well. She does still "watch" some TV. Listens more than watches. But she is still pretty sharp!!! Report
I'd like to take classes for as long as I can... even if it's just one class at a time to continue to learn something. I think learning new languages and music would be great ways to keep yourself mentally sharp... I'll work on that after my masters. ;) Report
My poor grandfather has really gone down hill in the last year. A year ago he was living on his own, then assisted living, and now a nursing home! The problem is he was always Mr. Social but he already has been pretty deaf for the last 5 years and now he lost sight in one of his eyes. He isn't able to read, play a game, etc. All he can do is watch TV with the volume turned way up. We, the family, visit him a lot at least but he can't even make new friends because most people don't have the patience to have to talk so loudly and repeat everything. :( Report
My great aunt is 102 and only moved into an assisted living facility after turning 100. She's known for her Scrabble skills and is still hard to beat! Her pasttimes have always included: scrabble, crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, reading, flower gardening, and coffee with friends and neighbors. I think I'd better take up a few more of her habits! Report
I hope to stay active and involved with life. I do think that for many people this does make a big difference in their quality of life. Think involved and you will be involved. Report
Alzheimer's Disease is a TYPE of Dementia, the most common type. there is also Lewy Body type, dementia caused by trauma, vascular dementia and a host of others. (geriatric nurse here...I deal with it all ) Report
I first want to state one thing - there are some comments made about alzheimers and dementia. There is a big difference between the two, Alzheimers being a disease, dementia is not. Doing crosswords, staying mentally active will not help a person who is afflicted with Alzheimers, but it very possibly may help stave off dementia. My Mom is turning 80 this year, one of her grandmothers live to 102, the other to 97. Her mother lived until the age of 96. I guess we have long life genes on her side. She reads, does all sorts of mental puzzles. We very often do the Sunday Times puzzle over the phone together (I can't drive due to my disability) as our way of spending regular time together and we chat and enjoy ourselves. I figure we are both helping our mental acuity, getting regular interaction and I know she is doing okay because of our conversations. I figure anyone who can complete most of the Sunday Times crossword has got to be all there mentally. I, for one, firmly believe that the more active you are mentally and socially, the better your chances are for staving off dementia. At least I'm keeping my fingers crossed and doing everything I can to keep it that way for my Mom and me Report
I don't neccessarily agree with the article though there may be a lot of other factors to consider. My mom, who has Alzheimer's, was very active in the church choir and women's groups and loved her weekly bridge games with friends. She had the first signs of Alzheimer's at 55 years of age. She is still alive at 80, but has not spoken for more that 8 years. Report
I think this is a great article, retirement and nursing homes as well as Independent Senior/Adult living centers across the country have started using the Nintendo Wii to get their residents back into some sort of active lifestyle, even if they cannot stand, or remember what they have just done, it sometimes keeps their mind focused for the amount of time they are playing. Although, I do 100% believe that having other people around also keeps the mind/body going. Report
Reading that broke my heart the same thing happened to my grandma. Report
Two of my grandparents have had (or currently have) some kind of dementia. One, Grandma A, was really young when she started showing signs (in her 70s). The other, Grandma B, was closer to 90. Unfortunately, I didn't get to know Grandma A very well, but I do know she had a much healthier lifestyle than Grandma B. However, Grandma B exercised her brain by constantly reading, writing, and learning. Grandma B had a stroke which caused her dementia. Grandma A had alzheimers. Maybe a combination of the two might work the best...I don't know. I think learning new things, reading, and working your brain as much as possible is extremely important. Report
I think exercising and keeping your mind active is a good way to at least delay dementia. My mother has had a dementia for a few years, and is only 76. So getting a dementia is one of my greatest fears, and i am doing everything i can to try to prevent it. Report
My Mother lived in her own apartment until she was 99. She retired from the housing authority at 95 because she was having trouble seeing and hearing! Her mind was sharp to the end. At 99 she fell and broke her right wrist. (She had broken her left one about 5 years before, but as she was right-handed, she needed help taking care of herself this time.)
It was her decision to go into assisted living, a hard one for my sister & me to accept. Just one year later, she had a stroke from which she didn't recover. She was 100 in November of 2007 and died in March of 2008. Only a month before her death, my sister & I were searching high & low for some important papers. It was Mom who reminded us that the last time my sister had them, she also had her geneology papers. Could they be with that? They could, and they were! Mom always kept busy until her eyesight failed, either reading or playing cards. Boy, do I miss her! Report
Hi I manage the Saskatoon Bridge Club, and have been just amazed at the number of healthy elderly people that play this game until they are no longer able to do so (for reasons like eye deterioration). There have been people as old as 95 playing and many in their 80's. To them, happiness would be dying at the bridge table! Bridge is, bar none, the most challenging card game you could ever possibly learn. Its the one game when you are encouraged to count cards! We hold fun dress up games, have a special senior game where you take your lunch and have lunch with the people you finished playing against, so its a great social mixer, giving you a chance to meet new people. We have master non master games, giving new players a chance to learn from experienced players. Its just a really fun time and there are various lessons you can take. See a bridge club near you! Report
I strongly believe there is a connection to the mind and activity. Having watched my mom slowly deteriorate when she was unable to get out and about due to her cancer, I also saw how she was mentally slower. Before she passed, she was entering dementia. My mom was a very intelligent woman, always on the go, and always smart, sharp as a tack, and quick of wit. When she became ill and it got worse (the last two weeks) she could barely remember anything.

In myself, I have noticed that if I don't do some form of physical exercise, I feel like my brain is in a fog. So, I make sure I do something, no matter how small, every day. The other day, I saw my neighbor cutting her grass and we talked for a couple of hours. My neighbor is 95 and was pushing around her mower like it was nothing. She refused my help with the grass cutting, but we weeded and trimmed her garden. She is an uber intelligent little southern belle that I just adore! We both believe that since she lives so close to the metropark and can take her daily walks it helps keep her fit and her brain active. Report
I can only hope that I end up like my Grandma, she will be turning 97 next month and is sharp as a tack. She is always telling us stories about the past and doesn't seem to have any problems remembering.
They will have fun trying to get her in a home for the elderly if the need was to arrive, lol...she will put up a fight!! She gets angry when my uncle reminds her to walk with her cane, she tends to get a little wobbly sometimes, and she says she doesn't need it, I love her dearly. Report

My mother recently died of Alzheimers, along with a couple of other slight problems. She was 89. It frightens me that I may also get dementia. I quite smoking, which my mother did until 1 year before she died, and I am trying to be as active as possible. Cardio 6 times a week, strength 3 times a week and as much walking as possible. I read a lot and have a fairly active social life. I hope it helps. My Mom was not a very social person; however she read all the time, crocheted, knit and played cards. I think activity is a key factor. I hope so. Dementia frightens me so, I was a geriatric CNA and worked alot with dementia patients. Alzheimers and Dementia are cruel diseases. Report
oops, i thought my coment would follow the one i saw. it doesn't. Report
best way to go, in my opinion.
still hard to know if clear mind allows people to socialize and play and do puzzles, or if the activities cause the clear mind.
the games i play are on the computer. not social. hope it counts. Report
I have a 99 year old mother-in-law who has lived with me for the pass 10 years come August of this year.....she has had a heart valve replacement in 2001, cataract surgery on both eyes 2002-2003, hip surgery in 2006. She is very hard of hearing even with the best hearing aids I could supply her with. She attends an adult daycare center 3 times a week, exercises daily (sometimes 3X's), reads, does crossword puzzles and is a joy to have around. She is the life of the party wherever she goes. I believe that the exercising and attending her daycare program is what keeps her young at heart. Each day is a blessing and continues to be ONE DAY AT A TIME. Report
My Grandmother passed away in 2006 at the age of 90. She was as sharp and 'quick' as any person I know. She passed very suddenly one morning due to respiratory problems. Less than an hour before she passed away, my Mother asked her "Where's your cane? Why aren't you using your cane?". Without missing a beat, my Grandmother replied to her "Why do I need that? Who do you think you're talking to?... Some old woman?". She did a lot of reading all the time. She never missed a day, and she stayed as sharp as anyone I know right up to the last minute. I miss her dearly, but I when I think about her I laugh because she was so funny as well. Report
My G-ma would have turned 94 in Jan 2009 she passed away December 08. She was active at church, read constantly also worked crossword puzzles. Until the last week of her life she was sharp lady full of life. Pnemonia made her sick and she just couldn't recover.
So one thing I learned is to keep your mind challenge even when she could no longer walk without assistance. She still used a walker up until she was so weak she couldn't. We are still getting puzzle books & large print Readers digest. Report
My hubby's grandmother was 102 when she died, she walked everday until she fell and broke her hip at 101, she was an advent reader and her mind was sharp as a tack up until her death. Report
I know it's oversimplified but....
My great grandfather's take(he was 94 when he died and just starting to forget little things): the mind is like any other muscle, if you stop using it, it doesn't work anymore. Report
I am not at all surprised. I have had family members remain quite sharp throughout their senior years as well as those who did not. The ones who remained sharp read the news paper every morning, read books and engaged in meaningful conversations. The others watched TV reruns and didn't do much to keep their mind stimulated.

I hope that my love of learning remains with me to the very end. That way I will always have my nose in a book. Report
My Grandmother (paternal) lived to be 86 and was as sharp and witty as she was at 20, according to her family. One of her daughters (my aunt) is now 90 on her last birthday. They were a farm family from small town in Nebraska and passed many, MANY hours playing, cards, dominoes, cribbage, yahtzee, crosswords, scrabble and several word games they made up as they went along. They were also voracious readers and passed that love along to me!

Due to these good genes and my own love of social activites and games, I believe that however long I live, I will remain just as sharp as my paternal extended family ~ Report
My dad will be 93 in August. He isn't strong physically, but his mind is still in good shape for his age. He's been big on the crossword puzzles & reading for years. Unfortunately, after my mother died, he lived alone for 10 years, so he didn't have alot of social interaction at all, (lived 325 miles from me), except for alot of regular letter writing. (he has VERY bad hearing for phone calls) But it was mainly his physical unsteadiness that caused him to not continue living alone. He fell & had several days on the floor in his house, before he was able to get to a phone & call 911. So now he's very happy in a small residential assisted living group home not far from my home. He seems very happy to be back amongst the living after being alone so long.
So - what I'm saying is that the puzzles & books have done alot for his mind, but I think he'd be even better if he hadn't been alone so long. He does have mental slip-ups, but the Adult Protective Services lady at the hospital when he fell, was amazed his mind was as sharp as it was.
Jenn Report
I agree. The best example for me would be my parents. Both lived to be 80ys old. Daddy retired, had no hobbies, showed signs of dementia. He however, had a hear attack & was without oxygen for a few minutes until the ambulance arrived (Learn your CPR!) which may have caused oxygen deprivation thus contributing to his signs of dementia which really seemed to show up after that incident. Mother kept active, met w/friends, was active w/the grandchildren. Sure, she would sometimes mix up the names but, catch herself & it would be for example... saying my sister's eldest son's name when referring to my brother's eldest son.She had 5 children & 10 grandchildren. (I catch myself doing it too with the nephews.) The only time I know of my Mother not having a sharp memory was the day of her open heart surgery. She didn't remember our visiting her in ICU that one day...that was all. Her Mother was more or less the same way, her body gave out before her mind did, @ the age of 97 & she would get the grandchildren's names mixed up but knew who we were...she had 5 children &14 grandchildren. :-D Sometimes, medicine side effects & medicine interactions can cause these symptoms too. As for me... I clain Mommy-nesia. 3 small children & tons of things going on. Anyone been there..the "what did I come into this room for... oh yea..all while yelling into the other room.Hey kids, stop that fighting! Share! :-D Report
My grandmother turns 93 this month. And yes mental and social activities have helped keep her active, bright and a wonderful lady. 4 years ago she moved from living by herself into an Independent Living Apartment and she blossomed. She's gained so much back in the past few years - she looks younger and more vibrant. She had started to deteriorate due to fewer friends, some health issues and isolation. Now she plays cards - bridge & crib, bingo, scrabble many times a week, as well as reading (the library is next door) and is always socializing! I am back to "booking" a visit with her to ensure she's home.

I am very happy that she is able to enjoy her life as 22 years ago she watched her husband deteriorate from a healthy vibrant man as he began his 9 year battle with Alzheimer's. Report
I can personally attest to the power exercise and of playing games - not only when it comes to "staying sharp" but also when one is trying to re-gain brain power. As many of you are aware, I am a ruptured brain aneurysm survivor. After brain surgery to clip the aneurysm, I found myself in a situation where I wondered if my brain would ever work well enough again for me to even function in the real world.

The neurosurgeon evidently told my DH that he should encourage me to go for walks and to do activities that required me to focus. So, every evening, hubby would take me by the arm and insist that I take a walk around the block with him (even though I was reluctant to do so since I felt like I closely resembled the Frankenstein monster, but that's another story).

The other thing he did was tell me that while he was at work, he expected me to spend at least an hour every day playing on the computer. At first, I wasn't even able to see a game of solitaire all the way through without getting so frustrated that I had to quit. Then it got to where it might take me the whole hour to finish a game, but by golly, I was able to lose at it with the best of them! Evenutally, I got brave and started going online to a couple of chat rooms. That made me work on regaining my ability to read, compose responses, and type.

If it had not been for that type of therapy, there is no way I would have been able to return to my office job just 6 short weeks after the rupture.

Even now, more than a decade later, when I am under a lot of stress, I start having what I call a "bad brain day" now and then. When that happens, I head for the old standby solitaire to help me regain my focus. In fact, I start out most of my days with a cup of coffee and a few games on the computer. I generally play until I can feel my brain sort of "switch on," allowing me to concentrate and focus.

I know that I definitely have to use it or lose it. Report
Based on my experience, I'd have to say that physical activity isn't as much a preventative as cognitive activity on this one. My late father had alzheimers, but was a wirey, figgety guy you could never get to slow down or stay still for more than a minute or so up until the disease progressed into its later more severe stages. My mother, on the other hand, was overweight most of her later life and severely handicapped by DJD, osteoporosis, spinal stenosis ... but she was the cerebral type ... only when her chronic congestive heart failure combined with kidney failure sent her into her last days did I see her mind start going, and that was the effect of mainly her kidneys being unable to rid her body of toxins when dialysis failed.
I think untimately, at least for neurological and psychiatric disorders, we're going to find that the solutions are biochemical or genetic, but that certainly leading an active lifestyle, as with everything else, may help delay the onset of just about everything. Report
My grandmother is proof that activity, physical and mental, keep you going strong as you age. She recently turned 90 (!!) and still goes swimming, reads, serves coffee at her retirement home, plays cards, goes to church, and has a social network.

She has been a physically active woman her entire life. I remember when she was in her 60s, she would take me and my two sisters out in the row boat (!!) and row us around the lake. She and my grandfather (RIP) were cross-country skiers in the winter. She has always been a swimmer and luckily, retirement meant being on or close to a lake.

Here's the other thing: she came from a difficult life. Having to flee Europe after World War II, she emigrated with the family first to South America and then to North America. She worked two jobs, supported the family (6 kids + my grandfather), and put herself through university. How she did it all, and remained healthy and active, is beyond me and nothing short of amazing. Report
I see this is my mother-in-law. Due to health problems she doesn't get around very well. I go over and clean her house for her. But because of her Church activities and her embroidery work and her reading, She has a sharp mind. She is doing great. I find too that if I just sit around my mind gets sluggish. If I do something mental my mind clears up and I have energy again Report
I am a fIrm believer in this, like the old saying 'US IT OR LOSS IT'.
The mind needs daily and active programming to keep sharp.
bj Report
My 92 year old MIL just passed away. She was very active socially all her life. She constantly watched news shows, read the paper, and was always reading biographies. She was sharp mentally until the last six months when her heart started to fail. She had to quit driving (yes she still drove until she turned91). She couldn't walk as far, she stopped going to lunch and committee meetings with her friends. Sadly the loss of this contact with people also contributed to her being a little confused at times. We should all take a lesson from these older with it individuals. Keep on playing those games and socializing. Report
Yes. Grandma in our family has been so active her whole life. The kids joke and say she had a propeller on her butt because she just zips around. However, she has had some health issues lately and it seemed overnight that she has gone downhill. She sleeps most of the days and is on pain meds for a pinched nerve in her back. She has developed scoliosis and the spine has twisted. She is in physical therapy but at 84 now she is loosing motivation. One health problem and older folks just cannot swing back. Report
My Mom is in her 80's her mind is sharp she reads alot and does crossword puzzles I read and do puzzles also. Report
Absolutley!! When my 4 children were very small, we just moved to a small town and i was so busy with my youngens that i never really connected with anyone in the town as far as friends go. After a few years of basically "baby talk" i realized i was losing my conversational skills!! It took awhile to be able to hold a conversation with an adult again!! so yeah, if u dont use it , u lose it!! Report