Declining brain health is perhaps the greatest fear of older adults. The good news is that you can take steps to maintain your thinking and memory for many years to come.
A healthy diet, regular aerobic exercise, and proper sleep are essential to keep your brain healthy. But work engagement and life satisfaction are two additional factors that confer mind benefits.
A study published Aug. 25, 2020, in Neurology looked at factors associated with later cognitive function in 100 older adults, mostly men, with no diagnosed dementia. The participants underwent testing for memory and thinking skills and had PET scans to measure beta-amyloid buildup in their brains. (Greater amounts of beta-amyloid are associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline.)
The researchers also recorded other factors that are known to influence cognitive function, like health history, sleep behavior, smoking, exercise habits, depression symptoms, and previous occupations.
Everyone was then re-evaluated up to 14 years later, with the participants’ average age at the end being 92. The researchers found that 30% had little, if any, cognitive decline, even though some had significant amyloid deposits. These same folks did share similar lifestyle traits. But they also were the ones who had continued to work many years past usual retirement age and expressed high satisfaction with life.
This echoed other studies with a similar message: An engaged brain is a healthy brain. “While your brain is not a muscle, you might think of it in a similar way. Without enough exercise, it can become weak and prone to problems,” says Lydia Cho, a neuropsychologist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “That is why using your thinking skills regularly is one of the best ways to protect against mental aging.”
Working on brain gains
Staying in the workforce offers multiple benefits that can help preserve and even improve brain health, according to Cho.
For instance, working increases social engagement and is linked to a lower risk of depression, both of which are associated with better brain health. Also, people who continue working have some added protection against the risk of depression.
The workplace offers the chance to actively use your mental skills, such as problem solving, breaking down complex tasks, comprehension (understanding multiple sources of information), and evaluation (judging whether a decision is correct).
“Older adults should consider postponing full retirement as long as possible and continue to work and be mentally active and engaged,” says Cho. “Many people look forward to retirement only to find that they have nowhere to be and nothing to do.” If you do retire, then consider other meaningful activities, whether that is spending quality time with family or working on hobbies.
Even if you don’t need the money, getting compensated for work offers a mental boost because it validates your worth, says Cho. “It shows that you still have value to others and the world, and that what you do is important and needed.”
Another bonus: any extra money can be put toward things you would not otherwise do and that might also support brain health, like personal training sessions or stress-reducers like massages and vacations.
If you cannot hold a traditional job now because of the pandemic, consider volunteering. Many opportunities can be done online or from home. “Volunteering offers many of the same brain-building skills as a regular job,” says Cho.
Create a pod squad
Can’t work or volunteer right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic? There are ways to replicate these positive social interactions.
Lydia Cho, a neuropsychologist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, suggests creating a personal “pod” — an intimate small group that you interact with regularly. “This could be your kids or siblings, or even a select group of friends,” she says.
Schedule regular meet-ups so it becomes a habit and not something you do only when the need arises. If you can’t safely meet in person (while practicing safe social distancing), use Zoom or FaceTime on your computer or phone.
Ask family or friends to assist with the technology if necessary.
Get some satisfaction
Life satisfaction — how you feel about your current life and its direction — is often a struggle for people as they age because they no longer feel a sense of purpose, according to Cho. Working and volunteering can help fulfill this need, but overall life satisfaction can be much more. “It’s also about pursuing new goals and having a general enthusiasm for life,” says Cho. This can mean re-evaluating your interests to focus more on personal development and growth. “See this point in your life as an opportunity for new adventure and discovery,” says Cho.
If you need a spark, she suggests revisiting interests you put aside when you were younger, or taking on something you have always wanted to explore. For example, sign up for college classes in subjects that now stimulate your mind and interest, like history, writing, or science.
You can take many courses online or via Zoom, and many are free for older adults; check out www.health.harvard.edu/waiver.
Platforms such as Skillshare (www.skillshare.com) offer online classes and tutorials on a variety of creative subjects. And many local community and senior centers offer workshops in which you can learn a new skill or polish an older one, such as public speaking, cooking, or home maintenance.
“Look at what excites you and makes you happy, and try to do more of that,” says Cho. Your brain will thank you for many years to come.