When people talk about “aging gracefully,” they’re usually referring to physical appearance. But you can also have a gracefully aging mind.
In recent years, scientific research has delved into the secrets of people in their 80s and 90s whose brains function well — by some measures, as well as the minds of folks decades younger.
Researchers have started calling these high-functioning older people “super-agers,” and we’re learning more about what sets them apart. While some factors are genetic, many are things within our control.
Following are some of the best things you can do to keep your aging brain sharp.
1. Stay positive
If you don’t think you can have any impact on your mental age, you aren’t going to take steps to try to impact the health of your mind. Although it sounds like a cliche, staying positive is important.
“How we think about who we’re going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be,” says Shelbie Turner, a doctoral student at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and co-author of a study on the effects of positive self-perception in middle-aged and older adults.
“We hold these tremendously negative stereotypes about aging, and these start from when we’re really young. By the time we’re older, these are actually having a negative effect on our health,” says Elissa Epel of the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) in a university blog post.
In addition, the stress associated with a negative outlook seems to trigger real changes in our bodies that can accelerate aging by causing cell damage.
2. Keep good company
Loneliness and isolation cause a lot of physically damaging stress. So, make it a priority to keep in touch with friends, whether you prefer a wide circle of acquaintances or a few intimate relationships.
Emily Rogalski of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine does research on super-agers. In a Northwestern podcast, she notes that one of the distinctive things about “individuals who are free of dementia, free of cognitive problems, and really thriving in their community as well” is their endorsement of “stronger positive relationships with others.”
According to Rogalski, super-agers who maintain strong social relationships have four to five times as many of a particular type of neuron in the brain thought to play a role in awareness and social processing.
3. Stay in shape
One of the better-understood aspects of aging well is the importance of sleep, exercise and diet.
Epel and fellow UCSF researchers have seen physical evidence in the brain that higher levels of exercise and a Mediterranean-style diet make us more resilient to aging and keep us thinking faster and more clearly.
“As we get older, when we see declines in memory and other skills, people tend to think that’s part of normal aging,” Kramer says in the UCSF blog post. “It’s not. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
That’s backed up by research previously reported by Money Talks News showing that aerobic exercise and resistance training improve cognitive abilities regardless of frequency.
Certain foods are also better for your brain health as you age, including whole berries and fresh vegetables. Research also shows that two or more servings of fish per week may help prevent brain damage.
Epel’s research suggests meditation can help protect our brains from the damage caused over time by stress. According to the UCSF blog post:
“Meditation, exercise, and an anti-inflammatory diet can reduce and possibly reverse some effects of aging.”
“Our biological aging is more under our control than we think. If we can make small changes and maintain them over years, our cells will be listening,” Epel says.
The National Institute on Aging suggests relaxation techniques such as meditation and mindfulness to lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
5. Learn something new
Whether it’s finding a new hobby or reading a good book, there are clear cognitive benefits to exploring new things. Research even shows that video games don’t actually rot your brain — they may preserve it.
A 2020 study found that individuals between ages 60 and 80 had improved memory after playing a 3D Super Mario game for roughly half an hour daily over a month-long period.
Recently published research in the journal Neurology found that activities ranging from reading and writing letters to playing board games could help delay dementia into your mid-90s.
Other research shows that being bilingual could delay the onset of dementia. Never stop learning — or playing!