Tips for Staying Sharp as We Age

Things you can start doing today.

Posted Aug 24, 2020

Aging is inevitable, and, as the saying goes, “it isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” Despite the hidden upsides of aging that we’ve explored previously, changes in cognitive function as we age can be frustrating. While some changes to our mental faculties are inevitable as we age, there are steps we can take to minimize their impact. In this next series of posts, we will focus on lifestyle changes and strategies that are under our control and that can help us to stay sharp as we age. We emphasize four steps:

1. Prioritize Sleep. Sleep is not only essential for physical health, but it’s also critical to our cognitive functioning and our mental well-being. Despite myths to the contrary, sleep isn’t a time when the brain is at rest. The brain is incredibly active during sleep, and it’s active in ways that are nearly impossible to recreate during our waking day. By prioritizing sleep, we capitalize on unique brain states that can aide everything from our memory to our ability to control our emotions. Before staying up past the point of feeling tired in order to watch the end of a movie, or to complete a task, reconsider the importance of sleep. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

2. Get Moving. Like sleep, exercise is important not only for our body but also for our brain. Exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise that elevates the heart rate, gets the blood flowing, and increases oxygen delivery throughout the body and brain. It turns out that the brain is a particularly greedy consumer of that oxygen. Of all the oxygen that gets circulated around the body, the brain consumes about 20 percent, more than any other organ. That oxygen is used to fuel cell-to-cell communication in the brain and to maintain the health of brain cells. It is no wonder that when our bodies are active, our minds benefit. Extensive research has suggested that exercise can help to stave off effects of advancing age on cognitive ability (Barnes et al., 2015), and even a single bout of exercise can convey short-term benefits (Voss et al., 2019). Exercise can also help us to sleep better and can help us to feel better, emotionally. For those of us for whom the idea of exercise seems daunting—perhaps we’re imagining needing to jog around the neighborhood to gain these benefits—it is important to keep in mind that even low-to-moderate intensity exercise can be beneficial. For instance, some research has suggested that gardening activity can be sufficient to lead to beneficial changes in the brain (e.g., Park et al., 2019). 

Photo by Benjamin Combs on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Benjamin Combs on Unsplash

3. Be Social. Humans are social by nature. Throughout history, our survival has been dependent on our ability to work together to solve problems. When we are stripped of social connections, when we feel socially isolated, the repercussions can be dire. Extensive research has shown that adults of all ages benefit from social interactions, and from feeling socially connected with others. Strong social networks are linked to wellbeing across a number of metrics, including both physical and mental health, and can help us to be resilient when we encounter stressors or setbacks. Although we have a tendency to strategically prune our social circles as we age, we don’t want to prune too aggressively. Social isolation in older age can be a risk factor for everything from cognitive decline to mortality (review by Berkman, Glass, Brissette, & Seeman, 2001). In modern society, there are many ways to stay connected, and during the pandemic, many of us have become familiar with a wider array of tools and technologies to help us stay connected with one another. We must continue to prioritize high-quality social interactions; not just the passive scrolling through friends’ social media feeds, but ways of interacting that give us a real-time and positive sense of connection to others

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

4. Exercise our Brain. It’s not just our body that needs consistent workouts. Our brain may not actually be a muscle, but it can be useful to think about it as one, insofar as it needs constant strengthening in order to stay at peak function. The way to strengthen the brain? Use it, and give it challenges. Don’t just stick with familiar tasks. Try something new: Study a new language, take an art class, or learn a new craft, discover how to cook a new type of cuisine, or embrace a new type of technology. The possibilities are endless and the rewards for our mental faculties can be large.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but if our goal is to stay sharp as we age, then it is an important list to keep at the top of our lifestyle priorities. In coming posts, we will explore each of these topics in more depth. 

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

References

Barnes J. N. (2015). Exercise, cognitive function, and aging. Advances in physiology education, 39(2), 55–62. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00101.2014

Berkman, L. F., Glass, T., Brissette, I., & Seeman, T. E. (2000). From social integration to health: Durkheim in the new millennium. Social science & medicine, 51(6), 843-857. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0277-9536(00)00065-4

Park, S., Lee, A., Park, H. G., & Lee, W. L. (2019). Benefits of gardening activities for cognitive function according to measurement of brain nerve growth factor levels. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(5), 760. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16050760

Voss, M. W., Weng, T. B., Narayana-Kumanan, K., Cole, R. C., Wharff, C., Reist, L., ... & Magnotta, V. A. (2020). Acute Exercise Effects Predict Training Change in Cognition and Connectivity. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 52(1), 131-140. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000002115