The brain, like other organs, tends to show some wear and tear as a person ages. The aging can be particularly disconcerting if you fear your condition could bloom into dementia. A Harvard Medical School publication I recently dredged up delineates the steps that people in their sixties and beyond can take to maintain good mental hygiene.
As many people understand, regular exercise brings multiple benefits. A study in 2010 involving more than 13,000 women indicated that getting the most exercise at age 60 were roughly twice as likely to became what the article described as “successful survivors”—those who live beyond 70 “without developing cognitive, physical, or mental health limitations or a major chronic health problem.” The women scored higher on “executive function” skills—being able to prioritize decisions and then implement them. Exercise habits were studied as well. One finding: “Older men who walked less than a quarter-mile per day were 1.8 times more likely to develop dementia” than those who walked more than two miles each day.
As the article makes clear, exercise can benefit people in many ways. Not only is exercise good for the lungs; “people who have good lung function are sending a higher volume of oxygen through their blood vessels and into their brains.” A second factor is that exercise can reduce the risk of stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol—factors that raise the risk of dementia. Most interestingly, the article suggests that regular exercise can boost neurotrophins—“substances that nourish brain cells and help protect them against stroke and other injuries.”
The article also highlights the importance of lifelong learning. One major misperception about Alzheimer’s is that once you’ve been diagnosed, you’re not likely going to be learning much new. The Alzheimer’s Association makes a point to arrange outings to art museums and theater performances, among other activities. And I remain a voracious reader. I meet with a friend on a regular basis to discuss books. Occasionally I will read from one of my books that are written in German. This is toilsome. But it’s another way to exercise my brain. After an hour of reading German, I’m mentally exhausted, and ready for sleep.
Writing, of course, is essential to me. Ditto for reading. To draw on an analogy, reading is to writing as weightlifting is to muscle mass. To some extent, I am what I have read. Other valuable advice from the study includes keeping socially engaged. One study from 2008 found that “the higher the individual’s level of social interaction, the better their mental function.”
One topic—managing stress—is particular relevant to me. In my last two years of employment, I was frequently anxious, and for good reason. I knew that my job was hanging by a thread. Once I learned that I had Alzheimer’s, I started to relax. But it took a full week or more for me to decompress and feel like my normal self again.
Note: My next post will appear on Friday, August 18.