This December I will hit the big “6-0.” Yep, that’s 60 years old. And I’ve been a pastor over half of those years. Some restaurants now even offer senior discounts since they consider me a “senior.” I can’t take them. I still pay full price. I’m not yet ready to be called a “senior.” Getting a “senior discount” on coffee at McDonalds is one thing. Keeping your brain mentally sharp is another. As our bodies age, so do our brains. Are we doomed to irreplaceable cognitive decline? Or, can we make some choices to keep mentally sharp? Fortunately, we don’t have to let our brains atrophy as we age. Here are some choices we can make to help keep them sharp.
First, a few facts about the brain and aging.
- After age forty we lose about 5% of our brain mass each decade.
- The insulation around the axon or tail of a neuron (a brain cell) is called myelin and as we age it gets thinner. The thicker the myelin, the faster we process things. And the opposite also holds true. The thinner the myelin, the slower we process things.
- Dendrites, the little tentacles at the ends of our neurons that allow cells to talk to each other decline as we age. Think of a rose bush that gets pruned for winter. Although not as severe as a pruned rose bush, aging thins those tentacles.
Given these facts, how can we keep our brains sharp? Neuroscientists are now learning that we can stay cognitively healthy well into our later years. The term for our mind’s protecting our brains from decline is called cognitive reserve. The more we practice these habits now, the more cognitive reserve we take into our later years.
- Exercise. 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day has proven to slow cognitive decline.
- Learn something new. Mentally stimulate your brain. Stay curious. When we stimulate our brains and learn new things, we increase blood flow which helps keep our brains healthy.
- Keep healthy relationships. God created us to be in community with each other. Close, healthy relationships are not only good for the soul, but for the brain as well.
- Maintain a strong devotional life. At the end of our chromosomes lie protective caps called telomeres that are linked to longevity. Apparently the longer your telomeres, all else being equal, the longer you live. Long-term stress shortens them and devotional practices such as meditation apparently helps lengthen them.
- Don’t veg in front of the TV. Scientists are now learning that too much TV watching can accelerate our mental decline. So, go easy on the TV.
- Eat your spinach. Studies show that older people who eat lots of fruits and veggies, especially the dark green leafy kinds keep their brains healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., fish oil) also helps.
I’m encouraged by Peter Drucker, the father of modern day management. He wrote 39 books during his lifetime. He wrote 29 of them after he turned 60. He kept his brain sharp and it paid off.
What do you do to keep your brain healthy?