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 people 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 five 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.
“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, stress associated with a negative outlook seems to trigger real changes in our bodies that can accelerate aging by causing cell damage.
“What’s emerged is how much our mental filter — how we see the world — determines our reality and how much we will suffer when we find ourselves in difficult situations in life,” Epel says.
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.”
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, and that obesity has the opposite effect.
Certain foods are also better for your brain health as you age, including whole berries and fresh vegetables.
Epel and her fellow researchers conducted an experiment in which they placed more than two dozen people in a monthlong intensive meditation retreat. They tracked personality traits, anxiety, depression and some microscopic physical markers tied to mental and physical age called “telomeres.”
Telomeres — caps at the end of chromosomes — naturally shorten as we age. Shorter telomeres in midlife can predict an early onset of heart disease, dementia, some cancers and other age-related illnesses.
According to the UCSF blog post:
“At the end of the retreat, the participants’ telomere length had increased significantly, and participants with the highest initial levels of anxiety and depression showed the most dramatic changes over the course of the study.”
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 preserve it.
A 2013 study by researchers at two London universities found playing the sci-fi war strategy video game StarCraft helped players process ideas faster and boosted “cognitive flexibility,” which is essentially the ability to multitask.
Another 2013 study published in the scientific journal Neurology found that activities such as reading and writing had an association with memory preservation. And another study in the same journal found being bilingual could delay the onset of dementia by 4½ years.
Research has also suggested solving word and number puzzles can delay the loss of memory associated with dementia by more than 2½ years, and can even preserve memory and cognitive function better than some medications. Never stop learning — or playing!
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