Once, when I was in my mid-twenties and totally clueless about what it means to be dealing with old age, I found him sitting at the kitchen table translating poetry from German to English. Then in his late 70s, it had been over 50 years since he took basic German at the agricultural college he attended. I didn’t have any idea he knew even one German phrase. Yet there he was, diligently working out the poem, word by word by word.
“Why don’t you just get an English translation?” I asked.
He looked up briefly and growled, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
“Oh,” was all I could think to say.
Later my grandmother explained that he was fearful he was losing some of his memory. Characteristically, he decided to do something about it. He was using the task of translating the poem and the pleasure of conquering it to exercise his brain. Fast forward 50 years. Now in my 70s, I have a new appreciation for my grandfather’s concerns.
Like many in my age group, I’ve watched a number of my friends slip into dementia. It starts with simple problems with memory and word-finding that we all have. (I know I’m not the only one to run through all my kids’ names before hitting on the right one.) But the symptoms of Alzheimers and the other dementias aren’t funny or brief. They result in increasing frustration and confusion for the patient and increasing frustration and sadness for those who love them.
Put simply, dementia is a decline of the mental faculties we so take for granted when we are young. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, to be diagnosed, a person must show decline or adverse changes in two of the following: Memory, Language, Thinking, Judgment and/or Behavior. The Merck Manual states that approximately 5 percent of people aged 65 to 74 years and 40 percent of people older than 85 have some form of dementia. It’s a frightening possibility for most of us as we age.
Some medications seem to slow it down, but science has yet to find a cure. Although it sometimes feels like fending off dementia is just dumb luck and genetics, there is now some good research that shows that we may be able to at least slow down the mental decline of advancing age by taking care of our whole self. Those who care for their bodies as well as their minds, who continue to do things that give life meaning and, yes, those who continue to enjoy life, may in fact be protecting their brains in ways that science has yet to understand.
4 Ways to Slow Down the Effects of Aging:
1. Take care of the basics: The basics don’t get any less important as we age. Sleep, diet and exercise are the building blocks for good health and for slowing down the effects of aging.
Getting enough sleep matters. Most adults require 7 to 9 hours of sleep, even if they don’t think so. It may become more difficult (44 percent of seniors experience insomnia and certain heart conditions and medications do intrude on sleep) but those are problems to solve, not a reason to give up on sleep.
Continuing to eat well is equally important. Nutritional requirements don’t really change although some people find that they eat less. A 2015 article in the Healthspan Campaign Newsletter quotes Simin Nikbin Meydani, D.V.M., Ph.D., the director of the USDA Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, as saying that “malnutrition, both under-nutrition and over-nutrition are prevalent among older adults.” So don’t give in to the temptation to skip meals or to limit your diet to a few favorite foods. Your body and your mind need to be fed.
And then there’s the question of exercise: We don’t need to become marathon runners to stay mentally sharp. A 2015 study conducted by scientists at the University of Kansas Alzheimer Disease Center and other institutions found that although participants who exercised 225 minutes a week scored higher in cognitive tests than those who exercised less, the difference was not markedly significant. Yes, those who exercised more became more physically fit. But it seems that just walking briskly for 20 to 25 minutes several times a week may help keep your memory sharp. Working in your garden, energetically doing the housework, and even keeping up with the grandkids counts.
2. Take care of the mind: Grandpa may have been right about the importance of exercising his brain but the jury is still out on the success of computer based brain exercise programs. A report by the National Institute on Aging states that there is no evidence that computer brain games are significantly effective. But the results of some studies, though not conclusive, are encouraging. In 2013, the Canadian Medical Association published a review of 32 studies of strategies to slow down the mental decline in aging, including 3 that looked at the success of mental exercise. All three reported significant improvement in brain function. So translate poetry, join a book club, do challenging puzzles or engage in good conversation that stretches your mind.
3. Continue to do things that give life meaning: Even as he aged, my grandfather did volunteer work with his church and with his men’s club. He wasn’t doing it to protect his brain, but it’s likely that it did exactly that. Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, has been called the father of positive psychology. He states “well-being cannot exist just in your own head: Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.” Continuing to be involved with others in doing things that matter contributes to happiness and, probably, to aging well.
4. Have Fun: Imagine my surprise when my grandpa started taking mandolin lessons in his mid 70s. He had inherited his grandfather’s instrument but had never played it. “Now or never,” he said. Little did he know he was doing his mind a favor. A study done at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine states that “leisure activities such as reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing were all associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia.” If you’ve been waiting until you “have time” to start oil painting, to learn to play the piano, join a chess club or learn to dance — make the time and go for it!
My grandfather moved into old age with a sharp mind and an open heart, feeling useful and loved. There are no guarantees that doing any of the above recommendations held off dementia for him — or will for me. But they certainly will keep me healthier and happier. It’s comforting to know that there is a developing body of evidence that doing these things may also have important protective factors for our aging brains.