Staying sharp

Michael Marsiske, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of clinical and health psychology, offers these tips for healthy cognitive aging, based on the findings of several studies in older adults:

Continue your education. “Cognitive reserve” refers to the rich network of connections and knowledge that we build across a lifespan. People with more education and more complex jobs generally enter late life at a much higher level of mental functioning. Education can continue: take continuing education courses, read books in areas about which you know little, challenge yourself to learn new things.

Keep your brain healthy. “Brain reserve” refers to how much white and gray matter we’re able to retain into the later years. Good health habits that may help to prevent heart attack/stroke, arthritis, cancer and diabetes also help to maintain the brain. These include aerobic exercise, strength training, good nutrition and control of blood pressure and cholesterol. It is never too late to begin healthier habits, and exercise training has boosted cognition even in the very old.

Spot-train your brain. There is growing evidence that cognitive training, like that used in the ACTIVE study, can help to improve performance in areas that tend to decline in late life. Excellent, clinically-validated training programs are now available at low cost for computers, tablets and smartphones.

Combat negative mood. In general, older adults experience less major depression than younger adults, but depressive symptoms rise. Health challenges, activity restriction due to physical disability, retirement, financial concerns and losing loved ones are among factors that can increase anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, memory and other areas of mental functioning can be seriously compromised by mood disturbances. Seeking help with adjustment problems can be a potent way to guard against cognitive loss.

Engage. Participation in complex leisure activities that are new and interesting seems to confer benefits in terms of memory, problem solving and mood. The benefits seem greatest when these activities are done socially. Tasks as diverse as learning to act, quilt, play piano, use an iPad, or master digital photography have all shown mental or brain activation benefits. Engaging in social leisure seems to have dual benefits: It minimizes negative mood (which can sap mental energy), and it provides a kind of “mental exercise” with complex tasks. The trick, however, seems to be to try something new — something you’ve never done before.

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