When I first learned that most people begin to experience a subtle but measurable decline in memory in their 50s, I was not a happy camper. As a baby boomer, I simply couldn’t understand why we can’t somehow manage to stay forever young in spite of the passing years.
Then I learned about the important work being conducted by esteemed neurologist Dr. Marsel Mesulam at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He’s the researcher who coined the term “Superagers” to classify the fortunate older individuals whose memory and attention span were on par with that of a healthy, active 25-year-old. Essentially, a lot of it boils down to being willing to engage in hard work both physically and mentally.
It was once believed that puzzles like crosswords, jigsaw or Sudoku were enough to stimulate the brains of older people, but current research indicates that tasks involving more effort are needed to make a notable difference. The reason is when we perform difficult tasks, it helps crucial brain regions, such as the anterior insula, hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, defy age-related atrophy. The thicker these regions are, the better we perform measurable tasks, like memorizing a list of nouns, and then recalling the items 20 minutes later.
So if you really want to become a superager, learn how to embrace the difficult in life. Remember how frustrated you got when you were trying to learn a new computer program? Or tackle a tricky math problem? Or finish a long, exhausting hike? That unwelcome sense of feeling tired and ready to give up just is uniquely beneficial to our brain tissue.
If, like me, you tend to wimp out when faced with an unappealing challenge, it can be helpful to remember the Marine Corps motto, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” And if you are as concerned about the well-being of your mental faculties as I am, you could also supplement that motto with “and helping the brain,” or remind yourself that “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
- Stay physically active. Exercise improves cardiovascular health and stimulates the brain-derived neurotrophic factor that plays a role in helping the brain create valuable new neural connections.
- Don’t smoke. Researchers have known for years that smoking compromises the well-being of almost every aspect of your health.
- Maintain social connections. Being isolated opens the door to depression, which can trigger harmful, unhealthy behaviors.
- Make sure to get adequate sleep. A good night’s sleep contributes to memory consolidation because REM sleep is when we store new data for later retrieval.
- Pay close attention to your diet. A carefully planned eating program can diminish the risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The MIND diet (with “brain-healthy food groups”) and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) are sensible food plans with helpful suggestions. Research online for detailed information on each program to see which is right for you.