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Staying mentally fit as you age

4/24/2017 by Dr. Brandon Verdoorn


Just like your body, your brain gets out of shape if you don't exercise it. And just like keeping your body fit, keeping your brain fit doesn't require anything fancy. But what can you do to maintain your mental edge as you age? 

#1. Exercise your body. Any exercise that gets your heart pumping and your lungs huffing and puffing is good for your brain. Go for a walk, climb the stairs, dance, swim, cross-country ski, work in the yard, take a fitness class. It's not important what you do, but that you do it and do it regularly. The rule of thumb is at least 30 minutes five times a week. But you also can move in smaller doses more often, which can make it easier to work into your everyday life. 

What's the body-brain fitness connection? Exercising lowers your blood pressure and reduces cholesterol, both of which can affect the blood vessels feeding your brain. Some research also has found that exercise can slow shrinking of the brain, which, to some degree, happens naturally as we age. When more advanced, it can be associated with conditions like Alzheimer's dementia. 

#2. Make your brain work. As with physical exercise there's no "best" activity to keep your mind sharp. Use the computer; do crossword, number or jigsaw puzzles; play cards and other games; knit; build something in your woodshop; read; brush up on your high-school French; discuss current events with a friend. 

A recent study here at Mayo Clinic found that people 70 or older with no cognitive issues who engaged in computer use, craft projects, social activities and playing games had a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment. Researchers followed nearly 2,000 cognitively normal participants for an average of four years. They discovered that engaging in these "brain games" one to two times a week reduced the risk of mild cognitive impairment by: 

  • Computer use: 30%
  • Craft projects: 28%
  • Social activities: 23%
  • Playing games: 22%

#3. Get social. As we age, it's easy to become isolated as friends or family move or pass away. We're social creatures, and our brains fare better when we connect with others. You can get a double whammy of brain stimulation by going for a morning walk with a neighbor, taking a group exercise class, joining a book club, volunteering, singing in the church choir, or playing cards or other games with a regular group. 

Whatever it is you do to stay mentally fit, choose something you enjoy, not only to make it easier to stay with, but also to enrich your life. 

Dr. Brandon Verdoorn is a geriatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Primary Care Internal Medicine (PCIM). He completed his MD at Mayo Medical School and his residency in Internal Medicine, as well as a fellowship in Geriatric Medicine, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. His interests include geriatric medical education and primary care of frail, elderly patients.