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Pathways to Optimal Aging

 

For decades, scientists believed that the health of the brain and our mental abilities only deteriorated as we moved into the later seasons of our lives. But recently, new research has brought to light a deeper understanding about how the brain changes over the decades.

"The mind gives us ‘inner pushes’ and creates new opportunities for positive change throughout adult life," says Dr. Gene Cohen, a psychiatrist and gerontologist who heads George Washington’s Center on Aging, Health & Humanities in Washington, D.C.

In The Mature Mind: the Positive Power of the Aging Brain (Basic Books, NY), Cohen reports on new research, based on data drawn from more than 3,000 older adults, using in-depth interviews and questionnaires.

Among his findings:

Vigorous physical exercise boosts brain development. Exercise "juices" the brain by stimulating the production of growth chemicals in the brain.
Mental activity also boosts the brain. You can work up a mental sweat by participating in educational courses, writing and arts programs, book discussions, and engaging in challenging work – paid or volunteer.
On the downside, physical and psychological stress reduces the growth of new brain cells.
Excessive alcohol and drug use, inactivity, obesity, malnourishment, and social isolation are the real culprits behind age-related mental decline, not aging itself.
According to Cohen, older adults are less likely to remember negative than positive emotional experiences.. This is due to many factors, including greater acceptance of life’s realities, a greater sense of self, and changes in the brain’s key emotional center, the amygdale, specifically in response to negative emotions.
Only 10 per cent of participants experienced a midlife crisis. Cohen says, "Middle-aged people undergo a profound revaluation, asking themselves: Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going?"
Exercising your creative powers can pack a powerful punch. Try a new style of dress, jot down wild ideas when they pop into your head, make friends with people of all ages, learn something new, develop your artistic skills – join a drama club, take a class in photography, make your own jewelry. Studies indicate that creative activities and their consequent positive effect, on mood and morale can lead to an increased production of protective immune cells.
Engage in a mix of activities – solo vs. group, energetic vs. quiet activities. But more important than the nature of the activity, is its duration – membership in a book club that meets regularly, for example, over a number of one-shot activities. "Simply being involved in many transient activities with limited potential for fostering mastery or building new relationships did not translate into improvement in health," Cohen says.

Retirement

In his study of retirement, begun in 2000, Cohen found less than 10 per cent of participants had done any preparation beyond financial planning. Half of the people were very satisfied with retirement. But half were not. Better planning, both financial and social, would have helped.

Pre-retirement planning

Here’s what Cohen advises:

Develop a social portfolio along the lines of a financial portfolio. The assets in your social portfolio are your activities and your relationships. You should start as early as you can, but it is never too late.

And just as with your financial portfolio, you plan for a rainy day, so with your social portfolio, you should plan for a time when you may be less mobile by investing in high and low mobility activities.

THE SOCIAL PORTFOLIO

HIGH-MOBILITY

Group: Participating in an ongoing dance or theater troupe; tour guide at the museum

Individual: Gardening; nature photography

LOW-MOBILITY

Group: Hosting your own salon or book club; creating a family newspaper with grandchildren

Individual: Researching a family tree; volunteering via phone work