Pop quiz! What one thing do these people have in common?
Bob Hope, Pablo Picasso, Grandma Moses, Igor Stravinsky, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Glenn, Albert Schweitzer, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Albert Einstein, Andre Segovia, Ronald Reagan, Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fred Astaire, Benny Goodman, Billy Graham, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Yaeger, George Burns, Col. Harlan Sanders, Tony Bennett, Morgan Freeman, Jimmy Carter and Katherine Hepburn.
Can’t think of one? All of these people had a major impact in the world after the age of 65. In a culture that values youth over aging, some of us have allowed others to put us out to pasture; some of us have even put ourselves out to pasture. But, as older adults, we can still have a fulfilling life ahead of us. If you think your aging brain isn’t up to it, here’s some encouraging news: Memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process. Short of a progressive dementia (such as Alzheimer’s disease), our brains can continue to produce new brain cells and grow throughout the course of our lives. They simply function differently.
Cognitive functioning, otherwise known as “brain power,” is comprised of three facets: intelligence, learning and memory.
There are two kinds of intelligence. Fluid intelligence is “innate.” It involves thinking skills that are biologically determined, independent of experience or learning. We might say of someone who excels at baseball, “He’s a natural.” This type of intelligence actually decreases as we move out of the early adult years. Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, involves thinking skills we acquire through education and life experiences, resulting in greater wisdom and common sense. This is known as “verbal” intelligence. Of a person exhibiting verbal intelligence we might say, “She’s a great speaker.” This type of intelligence continues to increase all of our lives!
Learning is the process by which new information or skills are encoded and stored in our memories. We observe something through one or more of our five senses, decide whether it’s worth processing in our minds and, if it is, file it in permanent storage in the brain. And all this, even as we age, occurs so quickly that we may not even be aware that it’s happening.
Memory is the process of retrieving or recalling the information that we’ve stored when it’s needed. This is the cognitive function that brings the most frustration as we age. The good news is that normal aging does not affect our capacity to grow; it just takes a little longer to “pull up the file!” And there are ways to shorten the waiting time.
To prevent cognitive decline, we need to keep up or step up the same good habits that maintain our physical vitality: frequent socialization, sufficient sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise. But if we stop at physical vitality, we can come up short; mental exercise is also necessary.
Challenging ourselves to do something new or differently is key. Even moving things around in our homes gives our grey matter a workout. Try driving a different route to a routine destination. Shop at a different grocery store. Take on activities that don’t come naturally to you. If you are better at math or science, try writing stories or learning a new language. Are you adept at verbal skills? Learn to play an instrument. Take a trip to some place new. If you like mystery novels, read a biography. If you usually head to the same Italian restaurant, experience a sushi bar. Play games that involve strategy, try a new recipe, take up a new hobby or design something. There are almost limitless fresh things to experience!
For more about keeping your mind sharp, click here to read Michelle Kutner’s article “Use it or lose it.”
To reverse cognitive decline, which is not a normal part of aging, we might need to investigate culprits such as depression, medications or medication combinations, thyroid problems, exposure to toxins, neurological disorders, infections, head trauma, hormonal changes, dehydration or excessive alcohol consumption. Partner with your physician to mitigate these.
With the new year approaching, challenge yourself, and maybe your spouse or friends, to try at least one new thing each month. Even if it’s as simple as changing your usual TV news channel. The idea is to nudge your brain out of its comfort zone.
By this time next year, with 12 new things under your belt, you might just be so encouraged by what you’re able to learn and do that your name will be the next one on that list of famous older adults!
By Nancy (Nan) Brown, MS, M. Div.
Senior Living Consultant