In Your Free Time

6 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp

These tips can boost your physical and mental health as you age.

by Julie Halpert - September 10, 2018

Kenneth Langa, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, recalls a patient who always had a positive outlook despite losing one leg and half of another in the Korean War. The patient, who is in his early 80s, “lifts me up when he comes in,” says Langa, who specializes in geriatric medicine.

By 2050, the population of people age 65 and older is projected to be 83.7 million. And people are living longer than ever before, with the average life expectancy for a 65-year-old man today at 84.3 years and 86.7 years for women. How can you ensure that your brain, as well as your body and spirit, will let you accomplish everything you want in your golden years? Langa and other experts share the steps you can take now to boost your physical and mental health.

1. Stay socially connected

Langa says one element of his older patient’s sunny disposition is that he has a supportive family. A social network is “extraordinarily important” to your physical and mental health, adds Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer for AARP Services, Inc. She points to research showing that lacking social connections is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can shave eight years off your life. “We are inherently social animals, and that connectivity really matters to your health,” she says.

Tips: Langa suggests participating in social outlets that fit your personality, whether it’s regular walks with friends or activities at your religious establishment.

2. Find your purpose

Yeh says having a strong sense of purpose is what gets you up in the morning. Research indicates that has many positive benefits, including reducing stress hormones as well as lowering your risk of a heart attack or stroke. It also helps improve blood pressure and cholesterol.

Tips: A purpose could include continuing work you enjoy, but it should be aligned with your passions. Norman Abeles, former director of the Psychological Clinic at Michigan State University, says work provides a sense of purpose and also keeps you engaged with a community of people. Other possibilities are volunteering, contributing to the community, or setting personal goals—either related to your family or a favorite activity.

The average life expectancy for a 65-year-old man today is 84.3 years and 86.7 years for women.

3. Exercise

Langa says that walking even 15 to 30 minutes daily can help prevent diabetes and heart disease while improving your mental health, outlook, and mood. “There’s a noticeable change if someone can just get off the couch and get into a regular physical routine,” he says. Yeh adds that exercise can reduce the risk of dementia or delay its onset.

Tips: Yeh says an activity such as a walking book group, where you discuss your latest read while taking a stroll, can engage your mind and your body simultaneously. Tai chi is another option, one Langa says is beneficial both cognitively and physically. Regular practice of tai chi can also improve your balance and help prevent falls, which can be the beginning of serious health issues for older people.

4. Find challenges in new activities

One of the best ways to boost your mental health is to work your brain the same way you exercise your muscles—which includes breaking up your routine. Taking on a new task makes your mind think differently. “If you don’t use your mind, you lose it,” Yeh says.

Tips: Try learning how to play a musical instrument or tackling a new language.

5. Reduce stress

Stress increases the levels of inflammation in the body, which can damage the brain, Langa says. “There’s reasonable scientific grounding to say if you can address anxiety and depression, that will decrease the risk for [mental] declines with age,” he adds. Learning to lead a more balanced life where you stay focused and present is key. “Stress reduction, along with exercise, can be very healthy,” Yeh says.

Tips: Stress busters can include activities such as meditation or yoga.

6. Eat healthily

A healthy diet “is good for your body and your mind,” Yeh says. Eating right has been connected to a lower risk of diabetes and hypertension, and vitamin E may help protect nerve cells.

Tips: Yeh recommends the Mediterranean diet, which limits red meat and emphasizes plant-based foods, fish, and healthy fats such as olive oil.

Julie Halpert is a Michigan-based freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Family Circle, and MORE magazine.

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