This Isn’t Caused by Aging…

By David Blyweiss, M.D.

July 3, 2015

  • Mental abilities on the decline?
  • Here’s how to flex your brainpower…
  • …And keep it firing on all cylinders well into old age

Do you ever notice that your mind isn’t quite what it used to be?

Now, I’m not talking about total memory loss or dementia.

I’m thinking about those times when you can’t remember a word you were just about to say, or the name of the movie you just finished watching.

Or how about when you add up the three or four checks on your deposit slip without a calculator? You mentally add it up a second time, to make sure the total is accurate…only to find you have to perform the addition another time or two before you finally manage to get two answers that are the same.

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These are minor slippages that seem to occur more and more frequently as we age.

And yes, they may indicate your mental abilities are on the decline. But it’s not old age that brings it on. There’s actually a reason for it. It’s called brain plasticity.

You see, your brain is constantly changing. New connections are made, while others may disappear. Brain volume might shrink in some areas and expand in others. Brain cells are constantly regenerating.

It’s like a roadmap that changes everyday.

But it really is a “use it or lose it” scenario. Once you stop regularly using your cognitive skills, the roadmap in your brain stops creating new pathways. It starts to wither away.

This can be especially true once you reach retirement age. That’s because your entire working life is spent dealing with daily challenges, constant learning and the exchange of new ideas with co-workers. This keeps your mind nimble. And if you don’t keep your brain active after leaving your job, it will lose plasticity much more quickly.

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So what can you do?

While there are many things that can boost brain plasticity, like getting plenty of exercise and eating a healthy diet, today I’d like to zero in on three challenges that are directly related to the “use it or lose it” concept.

Regularly present yourself with mental challenges. These days, most brain-boosters are presented in the forms of brain-training games. And yes, I’m sure they can help to some extent. However, you didn’t get to where you are today by clicking buttons.

Think back to your childhood. Do you remember studying out of books, always doing math in your head, and having assignments every single day? You really had to dig in and learn! Just imagine all of the neuronal pathways that were created during those years.

You can revive that natural learning process and expand the roadmap of your mind by studying a new area of interest, signing up for adult education classes or even learning a new hobby.

For example, you could study a new language, take up golf or learn how to play a musical instrument. It could even be as simple as learning a new skill, like wood-working or organic gardening.

Develop stimulating social relationships. Interacting with others provides you with something in the way of “mental activation.” It sparks new ideas and concepts that can stimulate your thought process and create positive changes in brain plasticity. (It’s also important to note that people who have fewer social ties are at much higher risk of mental decline.)

Take time to develop firm relationships with your family, neighbors, community and others – and stay involved on a regular basis.

Talk to everyone you meet.

Head out to the community college and sign up for a class or two.

Join a social club or become a volunteer for something you believe in. Take your new friends to the museum, planetarium or local art fair. All of these activities will expand your knowledge and ramp up your brainpower.

Change things up as often as possible. If you do the same thing – or drive the same route – every day, your brain never has the opportunity to experience new stimulus. So the more you can change things up, the more chances you have to create new brain connections.

Take a walk to explore your neighborhood, drive to the local art museum and investigate the exhibits, or stop by the library to pick up a book.

The key is to do something different – and stimulating – every single day.

The more active, productive, involved and challenged you are, the greater your chances of reaching old age with your wit, intelligence and memories firing on all cylinders.

Williams KN, et al. Interventions to reduce cognitive decline in aging. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv. 2010 May;48(5):42-51.