A great deal of attention is paid in our culture to the maintenance of physical well being as we age. A disproportionately large amount of that attention is paid to the condition of our muscles, joints and diet. Proportionately inadequate attention is directed at the need of our minds to remain stimulated and exercised as we age.
As people approach retirement or have already stopped working, their minds may suffer from the lack of ‘work’ that employment required. Even if people don’t consider what they do for a living as being especially mentally demanding, work, by its very definition, involves the expenditure of energy–some of which is, inevitably mental.
Some people become so concerned about this loss that they actually defer retirement or decline to stop working at all! The good news is that it is not all-or-nothing. Regular employment is usually not a requisite for maintaining a healthy mind and reasoning capacity. But, some regular exercise of that ‘˜muscle between our ears’ (as my grandfather used to refer to it as) is, indeed, necessary whether we spend our days at home, at work, in a gym, in bed or anywhere else.
There are discounted memberships available for “seniors” at many health clubs, older folks are seen out walking a lot more than they once were (both outdoors as well as, in some climates, inside local malls) and the vitamin/supplement industry targets a good deal of their advertising budget to marketing ”essential supplements’ to people past middle age.
The article is not a criticism of that area of focus and concern but is a wake-up reminder that our brains, like the rest of our beings, need some regular exercise lest, like other muscles in the human body, it may atrophy.
Mental and physical exercise are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Moderate physical activity benefits the mind. However, mental exercise, as a separate rubric, is deserving of some focused attention.
Although the human brain is not, technically, a muscle (but a highly complex organ), it operates in many respects as though it was a muscle and has, therefore, some of the same essential needs.
Like most non-specialized exercise, brain exercise need not be rigorous or exhausting. It DOES need, though, to be regular and at least mildly challenging.
Here are some examples of modest brain exercise than can help keep a person’s mind sharper as the senior years catch up with those of us who live to see them. Each represents a general idea, not a blueprint. Take the ideas and apply what they seem to suggest to you and your own life.
1. Change Things Up
Nothing routinely challenges any person’s brain quite so much as having to contend with change. Having to figure out an old problem in a new way awakens neurons that have been lying dormant in the easy and numbness-inviting state of thoughtless habitual repetition. Simple changes can be self-imposed and help a lot.
If you drive, take public transportation or walk somewhere regularly, challenge yourself to get there via a different route every day or two. This may sound preposterous but it actually challenges many brain functions and, in most instances, you need not fear getting lost. You may get where you are going a couple of minutes later, but it will be more than worth those few minutes. Also, you might even come across a more efficient and quicker route than the one you
are used to!
2. Learn Something New
If you are a reader, read something that is different from what you ordinarily read. Try a simply instruction book about something you always wanted to be able to do yourself but have come to rely on the skills of others for. If you like to read fiction, try a biography about someone who interests you. Consider taking a class at the local Adult School or Community College. If you are sedentary, consider a dance or yoga class.
Go to a library or book store and just browse until a title catches your interest. If it is something you already know a lot about, walk on by. There’s something on those shelves that would be gratifying for you to read and is different from what you have read before.
If you think of yourself as someone who does not do cross-word puzzles, give a simple one a try! The effort is ultimately more demanding of your brain functions than is the completion of it. As is the case with many other things in life, the gain achieved by the effort often exceeds that rendered by the accomplishment.
3. Make your Brain work a Little Harder
Many of the little things we do daily, without thought, can be easily transformed into mini-exercises for the brain.
I have a friend, now partially retired, whose mother suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. The prospect was on his mind quite a lot, so he began to do some small things that kept his mind sharper, things many people might never think of.
For example, he wore his wrist watch upside down.
Sound silly? It isn’t. When you invert your (analog) watch, your brain must ‘˜turn it back around’ so that you can read it in the accustomed manner. Small things can yield big results. Try reversing which hand you hold your fork and knife in. Not only will you become better able to dine as is the custom in other countries , but your hands will become ‘˜cross trained.’ This stretches and challenges your brain functioning.
There are many, many things each of us can do to enhance the continuing good functioning of our brains. Diet and exercise matter, too. If you don’t move enough, the brain can dull. If you neglect nutrition and enough water, the impact on the brain can be devastating. But, the organ we call the human brain can be exercised and worked to your advantage all by itself.
If this article has caused you to think about this for a few minutes, you have given yourself a small taste of what I am talking about. Good luck!