Staying mentally fit as you age
9/20/2021 by Brandon Verdoorn, M.D.
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.
Here's what you can do to maintain your mental edge as you age:
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, or take a fitness class. It's not important what you do, but rather 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 movement into your everyday life.
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 with age. When more advanced, this shrinkage can be associated with conditions like Alzheimer's dementia.
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; or discuss current events with a friend.
A recent Mayo Clinic study found that people 70 or older with no cognitive issues who used a computer, completed craft projects, took part in social activities and played 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 taking part 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%.
With age, it's easy to become isolated as friends or family members move or pass away. Humans are social creatures, and human brains fare better when connected with others. You can get a double dose 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 regularly with a group.
Choose something you enjoy
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.
Brandon Verdoorn, M.D., is a geriatrician in the Division of Community Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He completed his medical degree at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, and his residency in internal medicine and fellowship in geriatric medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. His interests include geriatric medical education and primary care for frail, elderly patients.