Healthy aging is important for everyone.
You’re only as old as you feel. You’ve heard that optimistic phrase before, and while it’s a nice idea, how can you actually improve the way you feel so you can age stronger and smarter? That’s the real question.
The answer is not a magic bullet or a surefire recipe for “staying young.” The good news, however, is that we absolutely can age healthier and prevent dementia and diseases like Alzheimer’s. It all comes down to one key lifestyle principle: lifelong learning.
Research shows that keeping our mental muscles strong matters. A body that’s physically and mentally in shape is better prepared to handle the test of time.
It sounds far-fetched to say you can learn yourself younger, but you can. Here’s how.
Lifelong learning is the key to stimulating the mind and slowing decline in cognitive function (or inhibiting it altogether!). Learning comes in many forms: taking an art class, participating in a current events discussion group or attending a talk about a subject you enjoy. The point is to engage the mind in an activity that exercises the brain.
There’s proof that learning does, in fact, keep the mental muscles toned up. The 2012 Rush Memory and Aging Project conducted in Chicago with more than 1,200 elders showed that cognitively active seniors (average age of 80) were 2.6 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia than seniors with less cognitive activity.
Beyond the physical benefits of movement—whether walking for a half-hour, golfing, gardening or playing with a grandchild—physical activity also works the brain. A University of Illinois study showed how modest, regular aerobic exercise can improve overall cognitive health. Older adults who took 40-minute walks three days per week during one year saw a 2-percent increase in the size of their hippocampus, which is the area of the brain involved in learning and memory.
We know that the hippocampus shrinks 1 to 2 percent annually in people without dementia. However, we can stop and even reverse that trend through regular physical activity. Exercise promotes the growth of new nerve cells in the hippocampus. So, you can actually build new brain cells to “fill in” for the natural attrition that occurs as we age.
Maybe you know how it feels to work an entire career and then, upon retirement, have no place to go every day and no agenda to follow. There’s no water-cooler talk and no meetings. You’re not commanded to socialize, so it can be easy to become isolated during retirement. We have to be proactive about making connections and socializing because socializing keeps our minds and bodies sharp. We stay engaged when we meet new people, make a lunch date with longtime friends or share an afternoon with family. We keep learning as we share our experiences and learn from theirs. This is lifelong learning “out of the classroom,” so to speak.
Education and lifelong learning stimulate our brains and keeps us sharp. We can preserve a healthy body, mind and spirit while delaying and even mitigating disease by committing to lifelong learning habits. And, it’s never too late to start. What will you do today to get those wheels turning toward better health?