Are you staying mentally sharp?

When I retired, I was given an excellent piece of advice from a psychiatrist friend who retired many years ago.  He told me that retirement makes it easy to develop passive styles of relating to the world rather than active styles.   He advised that above all, for success in retirement, I should  seek ways to stay mentally sharp by continuing some  form of active learning and some form of active mental output.

I asked what he meant by ‘active’ learning and output. He explained that activities such as reading or watching TV need to be moderated because the brain output is passive and not active — it is receiving and processing ‘inputs’.  The brain uses a more active style when it is actively involved in producing ‘outputs’ that involve memory, problem-solving or manipulating complex information.  He proclaimed that success in retirement is directly related to active and continued learning, noting also that many people return to the workforce as a method of keeping mentally sharp.

Since retirement I have thought about this advice and have considered various tactics  to help me stay mentally sharp.  I am well aware that subtle changes in memory and information processing occur with aging.  Occasionally I forget a name or a date,  or I find myself searching for a word to label something that I am describing.   I’ve  noticed that others experience similar lapses and I cringe when people describe such a lapse as a ‘senior’s moment’ regardless of their age.  I refuse to use the term ‘senior moment and am determined to minimize the effects of brain changes.

While some memory loss can be expected with time, research shows that actively using your brain will prevent erosion of capacity.  The latest (February 2011) issue of Chatelaine magazine notes that you need to walk 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) each week to preserve your brain size and protect your memory.  Brains need to be exercised and challenged to stay fit. Regardless of age, remaining mentally sharp is essential.   For the postworksavvy developing mental strategies to prevent deterioration will support a high quality of life.

Word puzzles, complex board games, bridge, and sudoko are often recommended in the media as methods to maintain brain capacity.   These tactics strengthen language, number skills and reasoning activities and keep the left brain sharp.  Creative activities including playing an instrument, drawing, painting, and engaging in hobbies like knitting exercise the right (creative) brain and keep it happy.

Neurological research shows that brain development occurs throughout adulthood.   The brain continues to form new neural pathways and it benefits from  ‘mental ‘ exercise.  Dr. Norman Doidge in his bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself describes the scientific basis for development of new brain capacity throughout life.  Doidge provides compelling evidence of changes that have occurred for patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions or drastic life events.  For the postworksavvy, this work is encouraging as it confirms that continued brain exercise is essential for continued brain health.  But how do we stay sharp?  What activities will help to promote brain health and fitness?

Simple Tactics for Mental Fitness

  1. Start with the basics — good physical health including proper nutrition, exercise and sleep — these are the building blocks for a healthy body and a healthy mind.   Skipping exercise, eating junk and lounging in front of the fireplace is easy during these Canadian winter days when the body wants nothing more than to rest on the couch and eat satisfying carbohydrates.  For the postworksavvy looking for optimal mental fitness, the boost in circulation from a burst of exercise is convincing as is eating sensibly and getting enough good quality sleep.  Try it for yourself.
  2. Consider various mind/body activities. The Mayo Clinic advises that meditation activates the happiness and contentment zones of the brain as well as reducing stress and anxiety.  It is likely not a coincidence that yoga has become so popular as this is an excellent pathway to meditation.  Yoga also brings other benefits including increased flexibility, better circulation and stronger muscles.  Regardless of whether it leads to mind to a meditative state, it just feels good!
  3. Break out of monotonous routines. An easy and simple brain exercise is to use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth for a week or to trying writing a few lines with your non-dominant hand.  While mundane, these exercises do help to stimulate your brain.  You can also seek a change of routine by trying new restaurants, driving home on a different route, checking out local galleries or museums, or attending lectures.
  4. Engage in learning activities. Classrooms are great places to learn new skills and meet new people.  You might challenge yourself by learning another language or by learning to play an instrument or pursuing a new hobby.  It’s never too late to achieve those dreams that were set aside during the years of work.
  5. Have an active social life.   Language capacity is strengthened through conversation and debate.   Word-finding, recall and sequencing are exercised.  Interpersonal rewards come from relationships with people of all ages and stages of life so look for opportunities at your local community centre, through volunteering or through clubs/groups that offer socialization.

No magic  bullet — No Single Track

Staying mentally sharp involves taking charge of your cognitive and mental ability.  By incorporating various activities that are both enjoyable and stimulating into your daily/weekly schedule,  mental fitness is attainable.    Develop your tactics.  Don’t worry about making mistakes because it doesn’t matter.  Just keep trying — especially with those creative activities.

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