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July 19, 2021

Perhaps you’ve seen a television interview with a centenarian whose mind is as sharp as a tack and thought, “I want to be like that someday.” Or maybe you even have a grandparent or friend in that category. The million dollar question is, “How do we get there from here?”

We put a lot of focus on staying physically strong as we age, but no one wants a diminished mind inside of a robust body with a long life expectancy. Mental fitness is critical, and there are many things you can do to strengthen your brain.

Up until a couple of decades ago, scientists assumed that the body only generated new brain cells in youth. Exciting research, however, including one groundbreaking 2019 study, showed that people were generating new neurons into their 90s. We now know that the brain can be a vibrant, evolving entity lifelong, generating new cells, making new connections, and even increasing in size into old age.

That’s wonderful news, but it’s not necessarily everyone’s destiny. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School, by age 70, one in six people has mild cognitive impairment, which puts them at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

So how do we end up on the right side of this? Fortunately, we’re not just victims to a ticking clock. We can seize the day and take meaningful steps to keep our mind expanding.

Here are a few suggestions:

Exercise. A University of British Columbia study showed that regular aerobic exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus—the part of the brain that controls your memory and aspects of your learning aptitude. The study was done on older women with mild cognitive impairment, showing that exercise may not only be able to help prevent memory loss but also help slow it once it starts. Other types of exercise (resistance training, balance, etc.) did not have the same degree of influence as heart-pumping aerobic activity. Aerobic exercise also helps you manage stress and make clear-minded decisions—both of which are good for your mental state.

Start a new hobby. What have you always wanted to do or learn but never made time for? Now you have extra incentive to make it happen. Exploring a new hobby or interest isn’t just fun and exciting, it can also allow your brain to explore new thinking patterns that keep it agile and growing. Make the time to learn a language, take music lessons, or learn to paint or sculpt. These pursuits present your brain with challenges and cause it to work in new ways to overcome them.

Sleep. According to the HealthDirect, 4 in 10 Australians don’t get enough sleep. No big deal? Think again. When you sleep, your brain is able to clear out the “junk,” catalogue your memories, and fortify connections between brain cells. If you deprive your brain of sleep, it will have a hard time focusing and participating in high-level thinking processes, such as innovating and problem solving. Lack of sleep will take a toll on our brain over time. Without that nightly brain organization that sleep brings, you could lose your ability to retrieve information efficiently. In short, you’ll become more forgetful.

Get the proper nutrition. A study examining biomarkers in the blood found a very strong correlation between nutrition and cognitive function. Specifically, they found that people with high levels of vitamin B family vitamins as well as vitamins C, D and E scored higher on cognitive tests. Eating a balanced diet is the best way to get the vitamins you need, but that’s not always easy in today’s world of busy schedules, fast food, and processed food. And besides that, as the body ages, it does not always absorb nutrients well. Brain support vitamins and herbal supplements can help fill in the nutritional gaps and give you the nutrients that you need to stay mentally sharp.

Make human connections. Loneliness is an enemy to mental acuity. In a landmark 2014 study conducted in the U.S., a University of Chicago research team showed that the lack of social connections can cause cognitive decline. Social interactions require us to engage neural networks that support brain function. Imagine a face-to-face conversation. You’re taking in words and facial expressions and body language, interpreting them, and then replying in an appropriate way. This kind of mental stimulation is critical for warding off cognitive decline. So while it may be easiest to turn inward and limit social action, it’s not actually good for our brains.

Yes, aging happens to the best of us, but that doesn’t mean we’re consigned to a slippery-slope of cognitive decline. By making important adjustments to our behaviours, we can support cognitive function well into our advanced years. And who knows, maybe you’ll be that 100+-year-old wowing people with your quick wit and rapid recall.

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