Want to get older without feeling old? In “Old is the New Young,” the Erickson Corporation takes the latest clinical research findings on aging and explains how to keep the mental, physical, social and financial aspects of life thriving. Here is an excerpt.
As we said earlier, research shows that interactive activities benefit your brain the most. These types of activities help your brain exercise several pathways at once and keep your connections working efficiently. Most activities involve interacting with others, exchanging new ideas, or learning a new skill. Some examples:
Popular ones for older adults are square dancing and ballroom dancing, both of which require partners. You are training your brain to learn new movements while interacting verbally.
Actively participate in book discussion groups, or discuss new books or magazine articles with friends. This easy and inexpensive activity sharpens your mind because it helps you formulate and communicate new ideas.
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Learn a new language
Research shows that hearing new accents, practicing different grammatical structures, and uttering new sounds triggers your brain to stay sharp. Try one of the world’s easiest languages called Bahasa, spoken in Indonesia and Malaysia. Or, plan a trip to a foreign country and challenge yourself to learn the language.
Learn a musical instrument
Learning to play (or practicing one you’ve already learned) keeps your mind in shape by hearing new sounds, seeing and interpreting musical notes, and synchronizing handeye coordination.
Volunteer your brain for your community
Find a way to share your knowledge and experience for the benefit of others. A Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study showed that older adults who participated in Experience Corps, a nationwide program in which adults age fifty-five and over tutor and mentor schoolchildren, had increased cognitive abilities. Brain scans documented the increased mental activity in study participants.
Experience new new ways to vacation
Instead of your usual summer trip, seek out new experiences with an educational travel organization like Elderhostel or a senior-friendly travel group like Grand Circle Travel.
Examples of other activities that have been associated with sharper minds are acting, painting/art, quilting, photography, and even surfing the Internet. Most of the above activities have been scientifically studied with regard to their brain benefits. Keep in mind, however, that any activity can be beneficial as long as it’s something new to you.
Beware of one-way learning
Some activities might seem like a good idea for sharpening your mind, but research shows otherwise. An example is taking college classes or attending lectures. Simply listening to a lecture, whether in a formal class or otherwise, does not provide enough brain stimulation to positively impact mental fitness.
If you want to take classes or attend lectures, look for those that are discussion-based and interactive. If you take a class that doesn’t offer discussion or activities, set aside time to talk about the subject matter with friends or family.
If you want your brain to function as well as it did in your younger days, you’ve got to work at it. Fortunately, research is increasingly providing proof about ways to achieve your goals, no matter what your age or health status.
The Erickson Foundation compared a case-matched sample of Erickson residents to a representative sample of older adults enrolled in the nationwide Health and Retirement Study (HRS). Despite having more chronic conditions than their HRS counterparts, Erickson residents reported being in better health and experiencing less depression. In general, they felt happier. We believe that these results are due, in part, to Erickson residents’ active participation in campus activities and social interaction.
Secret #7: Sharpen your mind
No matter how old you are or how forgetful you’ve become, there are ways you can regain some of your mental sharpness. More and more research studies are showing that you can reprogram your brain to function better. One way to do this is by using brain exercises.
Formal brain exercises, like those developed by Nintendo, Advanced Brain Technologies, PositScience, Quixit, CogniFit, and many others, can be effective for some users. One program developed by PositScience has been shown in several research studies to shave ten years off of a seventy-five-year-old’s brain age. Although several of these products look and sound like simple video games, they can be expensive. Individual users have to pay about $395 for the PositScience program, for example.
To help our residents get more physically active at Erickson communities, we tried the Nintendo Wii system, with an excellent response. We therefore decided to give Nintendo’s Brain Age a try. Although not yet proven scientifically to better your brain function, and the “brain ages” that the game assigns to you need to be taken with a grain of salt, Brain Age is nevertheless a big hit in Japan, where many people carry the portable game and play throughout the day, hoping to improve their brain age. Many of our residents enjoy the system, and one eighty-two-year old resident had this to say: “When I first started playing, the system scored my brain age as eighty. I played it every day for a week and now my brain age is sixty-seven. I think the game helps me concentrate better.”
Another 2008 study from researchers at the University of Illinois showed that playing complex video games may improve older adults’ thinking abilities and help them juggle multiple tasks.
There are other, informal brain exercises that can provide you with the same kind of targeted brain training for a lot less money. Targeted brain training means that the exercises are designed for a specific purpose (like improving memory) in the same way that targeted physical exercises concentrate on certain muscle groups.
Brain exercises to practice at home
Some of the following exercises were developed by Dr. George Rebok, a Johns Hopkins professor and world-renowned expert on older adults’ mental health, and his colleagues.
Improve your memory skills
These tips are useful for improving all types of memory.
Step one: Pay attention. It’s common sense, but you tend to remember what you pay attention to. Example:
When you meet someone new, you may be so focused on what to say that you don’t pay attention to his/her name. Repeat the person’s name to yourself a few times or out loud (“It’s nice to meet you, Bob”), and you’ll be less likely to forget it next time.
The following steps can be remembered by the acronym, “M.O.V.A.”
Step two: M = meaningfulness. Make what you want to remember meaningful. Example: If you read something important or interesting, discuss it with someone, or better yet, several people. Talking about it will help the information stick in your memory.
Step three: O = organization. Group information into natural categories. Example: When planning a trip to the grocery store, group needed items into categories that make the most sense to you—either by product type (e.g., produce, dairy, meats), meals planned for the week, or the store’s layout. Then try to shop without consulting your list.
Organization works well with any large amount of information you need to remember—instructions for setting up your computer, for example.
Step four: V = visualization. See the information in your mind. Visualization lends meaning to the object or information to be remembered and allows the creation of a mental picture that helps with later recall. Example: A good way to practice visualization is to draw or write down what you see. Sharpen your skills by drawing a penny from memory, or anything else you’ve seen thousands of times, like a building you pass by every day.
Step five: A = association. Associate new information with what you already know. Example: If you want to remember a painting to describe to someone, start by concentrating on the painting’s elements individually. Associate each element with something familiar—if there’s a person wearing a hat, think about a favorite hat you’ve owned. Or if there’s a tree, associate it with the tree outside your window. Then try describing the painting in detail.
Excerpted with permission from “Old is the New Young” (GPP Life).
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive