REFECTIONS: On Jobs and the CCC
GAY AND GRAY: Involuntary Retirement

The Longevity Prescription of Dr. Robert Butler: Mental Vitality

category_bug_journal2.gif Most of the people who regularly follow Time Goes By don't need lessons in how to keep their minds active. We are avid readers, bloggers, activists, family chroniclers, necessarily students of computer workings, writers, poets, photographers, teachers, travelers and more.

Many of us have made the transition from our careers to retirement, but just as many, I suspect, have yet to travel that divide and Dr. Butler makes an important point I have used here to promote blogging as an elder activity that covers much of the known prescriptions for maintaining our mental acuity as we age.

“...many people do not realize that the workplace is their major source of intellectual and social stimulation; the loss of that day-to-day exposure to conversation, ideas and challenges needs to be filled by other activities.

“By all means, retire from your day job if you wish; but do so with an awareness that you will have not only hours to fill, but you may feel a loss purpose, structure and companionship.”

For some, like me, retirement is suddenly forced upon them through layoffs. You don't realize, at first, that there is never going to be another job and it is only after months, even a year or more, of seeking employment, that you have been permanently heaved out of the workforce.

After 40 or 50 years of daily routine, it is tempting to put up your feet and take the good, long rest you've never had time for. That's not a habit to cultivate if you want to keep your mind sharp in the coming years.

Chapter 1 of Dr. Robert Butler's The Longevity Prescription, “Maintain Mental Vitality,” contains many tactics for keeping our brains healthy within three overall strategies:

  1. Cognitive calisthenics
  2. Reconfigure your brain
  3. Improve your lifestyle choices

In each of the three sections, there are lists of activities to achieve optimal cognitive function throughout our late years. They are many, so I won't go through them and you probably know most of them. What I find valuable in this chapter is Dr. Butler's reassuring refutation, based on latest scientific studies, of common misconceptions about old brains.

“In the absence of severe brain disease, humans do not stop developing, whatever our age...your brain continues to regenerate nerve cells, including neurons and other so-called neural lineages. The process is not as rapid in the mature central nervous system as it is in a child's, but the adult human brain is constantly adapting and even reprogramming itself.”

Although our jokes about “senior moments” contain a strong whiff of whistling past the graveyard, Butler reports that most of us overestimate our memory dysfunction:

“About 80 percent of older people report memory loss – but testing has found that such subjective reports are overstated. It appears that our fear of a fading memory exaggerates real but minor memory loss...

“For most people the elusive memories will be accessed in a matter of time; yesterday's mild forgetfulness is nothing to worry about, as it does not involve other cognitive functions and isn't likely to be progressive.”

Butler reports on a study investigating the impact of training elders 65 and older in aspects of mental vitality:

“The results were impressive – and encouraging. Those who received the ten sessions of training saw their cognitive abilities improve. The benefit was measurable, immediate and long lasting, as the trial found that gains made in reasoning, memory and speed of mental processing were still very much in evidence five years later.”

Because I have a lot of trouble engaging in activities for activities' sake – walking without a destination is an example that impedes my exercise routine – brain games that were introduced a few years ago bore me. I prefer to do some research into something I want to understand or solve a problem I'm having. But if you have better tolerance than I, these should not be ignored. Butler mentions and (there is a fee involved) among others. But he also says,

“Keep in mind that the discipline of seeking information, on the Web and otherwise, is in itself an intellectual exercise that can help sharpen memory and mental processing skills.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place, the companion blog to Time Goes By, contributors often relate anecdotes and events from their younger lives. When I was a kid and older folks at a party, picnic or holiday gathering started telling their stories - “When I was your age...” - I tried to tune out. Dr. Butler explains that it wasn't just kids who would rather have been playing tag who dismissed elders' reminiscences:

“...the rather ill-informed professional consensus among authors of psychology and gerontology textbooks in the 1950s dismissed older people who engaged in reminiscing as 'garrulous,' 'boring,' and 'living in the past.' Their minds were 'wandering,' the professionals thought, with the implication that their memories were useless...

“Yet studies...have found that reminiscences in later life have an important role, as aging people all undergo an important inner experience. The term 'life review' was coined to describe this process of reminiscence, and today continuing research buttresses the importance of looking backward.”

So keep writing those wonderful Elder Storytelling Place memories.

Dr. Butler's book is not just a how-to for a long, healthy life, but a primer for the study of aging itself. As useful as the advice is – whether new information or reminders of activities we may have let lapse – his explanations, in laymen's language, of new research give insight and depth to his prescriptions.

Are you reading along with this series? If so, what did you get out of this chapter?

Next week we'll delve into Chapter 2 on relationships.

The Longevity Prescription Series
A Proposal
Chapter 2: Nurture Your Relationships/a>
Chapter 3: Seek Essential Sleep

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lewis LeMaster: Dad's Homemade Sauerkraut and Beer


Ronni, I got so much from your look at this chapter, and it made me feel good to know that my current obsession with childhood and family memories isn't some whim of someone over the hill. I do agree with you that memory games just for the sake of invigorating my brain are boring to me, but research on something I'm interested in can absolutely mesmerize me.

So I do not repeat - this chapter, Ronni and Marcia - I am in total agreement with you.
I never thought I would like a computer and my love affair with this item that sits on my desk has been for 5 years.
Many headaches trying to figure out so much but I have progressed. Probably not using a percentage of what it offers but I am pleased with what it allows me to do. If anyone had told me I would be writing an online journal at this stage of life - I would have laughed at them. I never thought I would be interested in photography and now that is a new and exciting hobby.
These are happening in the 3 score 10 years. I stay so busy and it is beyond me how can anyone can be bored when they retire.

Catching up with this book this week. I took the quiz in the intro and apparently I'm doing okay.

Doing it made me aware that I am seeking not so much "longevity" as having as good a life as I can while I can. Aging to me means no longer being able to pretend I'm immortal. :-) I don't like that, but I can't do anything about it either.

On the mental acuity front, I was thrilled yesterday to make a tidbit of HTML code work on my blog that has stumped me for about 4 years. Nothing fancy, but I'd never figured it out before.

As I still work 40+ hours a week, and all the stuff that goes with keeping a large house, tons of grandkids, and not well parents, I don't have a lot of boring time on my hands.

However, I think, for my own circumstance, it is important for my mental health to find a diversion from my day-to-day stresses. I blog, I read, I work on family history scrapbooks for my daughters, and travel with my husband when the opportunity presents - even it its only a short jaunt to a neighboring small town to visit a farmer's market.

I may not be at precise stage that Dr. Butler is describing, but certainly makes sense to not turn into a mental marshmellow (and that's true regardless of age).

For me, the greater trial is to find quiet time for my brain, not stimulation. Some days are so overfilled with mental drains, I find it hard to turn off my thoughts at night, very unconducive to good sleep.

What's terrific about Dr. Butler's book is there's something for everyone. He gives you a lot of options, truly a one-size fits all kinda of self-help tome.

One interesting thing I read somewhere else: don't always take the same route to your usual destinations. Mix up your usual wagon ruts. Reprogams your brain cells it seems. That's an easy thing to do.

(But that can be expensive if you're a garage/estate sale nut like me!!)

After rereading my comment, it appears I could use some spelling mental stimulation.

Truly, I can spell folks, I just get in a hurry...

You'd better stop that snickering...I know yo mamma....

I am reading along with you in Dr Butler's most excellent book. My mental activities are in the OK zone. I blog. I read other blogs and comment. I research and surf the web. I read books and two newspapers a day. I work a crossword puzzle. I watch game shows like "Millionaire" and play along. I watch the news. I am interested in training my year old Cavalier Spaniel puppy. I got him as an 80th birthday present when he was 3 months old.
(The puppy keeps me active.)

I need to work on more physical activity now.

I have a schoolmate friend who can remember the names of every teacher she had from first grade through graduation. She remembers the names of classmates and 'who dated whom.' I am doing good to remember the names of a few favorite teachers. She was shocked that I couldn't remember the name of my home room teacher in Jr. High. I responded, "Why would I want to?" That was an 'aha' moment for me because I had started to think there was something wrong with my mind since her memory was so much better than mine. Trivia and gossip always interested her and it never did me. Therefore, I simply forgot what wasn't important to me.

Now I have a new worry. It is really beginning to bother me. I will be typing along and a word I know perfectly well goes missing. Sometimes it's the name of my Senator, or an adjective that is on the 'tip of my mind'. And I reach for my Thesaurus a lot to find a word with a similar meaning to jog my memory.

Yesterday I was writing an e-mail and the word I wanted was 'memoirs.' Could I bring it to my conscious mind? Not on your life. I had to substitute with 'family history'. Today the word comes to my mind easily. Am I losing it? Is this the beginning of dementia? I am fearful.

I don't worry if I am like the old woman who was asked, "Do you give any thought to the hereafter?" and she replied, "Oh, yes, every time I go into
a room I think, what am I here after?"
That kind of memory lapse is common and easily explained. But forgetting words that you know perfectly well is a new phenomenon and I feel stress.

I do not have Dr. Butler's book so I am probably not participating well on the subject. But, being a very old lady, I am interested and will contribute what I can.


Dr. Butler specifically mentions the problem of well known words disappearing and it's not something to worry about.

As happened with you on the word memoir, it comes back. Happens to me all the time and, it happened when I was much younger too.

I've found that if I don't stress about it, the word comes back to me, although not always in time for the email or blog story etc.

I do fear losing my memory. I'm aware that it are tottering along at the right speed but I'm worrywart, and I'm pretty sure excessive worry is one of those brain scramblers. Got some work to do here, eek, work. I was very interested in the cognitive calisthenics but as with all other kinds of calisthentics I am kind of lazy unless there's a goal, finishing a book, learning something I wanted to know. I get bored plodding along the blocks in my neighborhood without motivation such as company or NPR on my headphones. I still haven't signed up for the free month at our local YMCA that I said I was doing last week. Today, today. So I signed up for a site called AWAD, A Word A Day. Today's word was "orison," new to me, meaning a prayer. They email you a new word each day. This is a second sign up for me because I wasn't even bothering to read that. Tiny steps are us, and are good.

Life review, at first I thought I was having huge attack of guilt, I shoulda, I shoulda, or should not have, but I eventually forgave myself, although I did discuss some of it with my grown sons, particularly remarrying their alcoholic Dad. That attempt to reconstruct our family put us all through as even worse second divorce. They both said "not a good move" but they both had some good memories of him at that time. The youngest adding "please don't ever do that again." The point (do I have one?) is that I can I am restructuring myself in my world and those memories and others, good and not so so, have helped me to know myself better at time when I'm not rushing from home to work to kids to classes, to kids, to work...I am busy but I have the time to thoughtful, and hopefully make better choices. Maybe I am slow to move into those choices to compensate for those younger days when I had to choose a lot on the fly and for reasons other than my own. Well, now my brain is tired, ha, ha.

Oops! The word a day site is if you're interested.

What my husband and I say is you've got to keep moving to stay alive, much as the shark does.
I think fast food or pre-prepared food and television are the two worst things for old people's mental and physical health. All those ads for hamburgers and pills. And depressing news stories. Fix your own food. Walk a lot. Stay away from the mass media, which are designed to make you feel like hell about yourself.

I've done one of the five steps I outlined last chapter. I had the conversation. Nothing has changed, but I have more information and that is a good thing.

As for brain calisthenics and such, I have decided that writing a daily post and doing the research and thinking for that post and going to the places which form the basis for that post has got me covered. In an effort to expand my brain beyond Sudoku and crosswords and Tetris (my guilty on-line pleasure) I am going to try to understand and commit to memory Dr. Butler's discussion on page 33 of the different forms of memory. I haven't tried to remember new science in a long time... this is an easy way to start, I hope.

Thanks, again, Ronni, for pushing me to read this and follow through.

Some part of memory loss may be attributable to lack of paying enough attention. I have always had a problem with remembering names, probably because I am more interested in saying my name than registering the new acquaintance. So I now do a little exercise when reading my "recreational" books - action, mindless, fast moving. I make a conscious effort to remember the names of each player in the story. I even quiz myself before picking up the book again to see what I remember. I have gotten better by this conscious effort to concentrate and remember what I am reading.

Darlene, I too have a friend who remembers details from our early years. I've never had that kind of memory. I just think it comes down to how our particular brains work. As for losing words, I do that all the time and it infuriates me. That's one of the reasons I started writing again. With writing, I can wait awhile until the word comes back. When I do it in conversations, people are sitting there looking at me and I start doing my charades routine - sounds like......

What I got was excited about the Guided Autobiography Groups concept. I once participated in such a group, though it wasn't guided -- just about 10 folks sharing stories weekly around a table for 2 hrs. It was motivating and fascinating. I'm going to get James Birren's book and explore doing something like that at our wintering place in Texas.

I've always needed to be physically active and involved in something productive. So these days, in my 74th year, I ride my bike and walk (had to quit jogging at 65) when my sore heel allows. I get lost in interesting online discoveries, prefer healthy foods (retired dietitian), keep my weight at 5#'s more than I really like, get lots of sleep, read 2 newspapers and mystery novels and do too many Sudukos (addicted). I retired from being super volunteer at my church by moving, but I do try to contribute my time here and there. Improvements: I could work at making more friends, having lost close friends by moving far away, learn to meditate, and drink a little less wine. I expect to live another 20 yrs if my dicky heart hangs in there. Goal: "Longevity Prescription" poster girl.

I am not much for living in the past or for that matter the future. I am where I am but once in awhile I come up with something that requires going backward for an experience and I have more details for some events than others. Actually some of the least important things are what will come back first.

I also do that with names or words and have wondered what it's about but with all the talk of Alzheimer's, I think we are encouraged to worry about things that earlier generations wouldn't have given a thought. It can be funny if I stop to think about it and finding a substitute word usually works. I blame it on information overload. We just have so much constantly bombarding us and then writing a blog adds one more which is healthy, I agree, but also can explain some forgetfulness on other things.

Alzheimer's - Long ago people died way before our age(s)!
As far as "forgetting" a word now and then, I'm no longer annoyed now that I know it's the new "normal" and if I just sit tight it'll float to the surface of my brain! Ta-da! There it is! I knew it was in there!
And names of people: I've never been good with names. Now people go,"Ah ha!" And I go, "No Ah-ha!! I've always been this way".
What really freaked me out was reading that back in the 50's the doctors, professionals and people in general thought that elders reminiscing was a sign of senile psychosis. Good grief!
I hope they are training our future caretakers a whole lot better.

I love what Hattie had to say. Too true. Simple and wise.

I did have fun playing with Luminosity, discovered via Dr Butler's book, for a few days until I had to pay!

Have discovered how "nature abhors a vaccuum"....since retiring (almost), have found myself becoming an activist and moving quite outside of my comfort zone. I had been planning to do all this reading, and painting, and ..... "when I retired". Guess I'm busy keeping my mind active. Tomorrow Ill be the "guest columist" on the opinion page of our newspaper, where I expound on how we should be allowing the keeping of backyard chickens in our small town as an antidote to things like the recent salmonella outbreak. I find it truly amazing how I feel more alive than ever and awaken in the early a.m. thinking of all the things I should be doing to "save the planet". I'm drawn to things such as taking a master gardeneer class, building a rain barrel, learning how to solar cook.

My sixties have thus far been some of the best years of my life, intellectually. I am beginning to wonder how many years will this energy continue--10? More? Less? I don't know, but am certainly working at doing what I can to keep those neurons firing, including the so important work on keeping physically fit.

Then energizer bunny must run down at some point--that does make me a bit anxious, and sad.

I started losing track of the word I wanted only to have it surface when I no longer needed it a few years ago. Then more recently I began to be able to remember new people's names without trying--like the customer service rep at the bank or the secretary at the lawyers office. I don't know if it's a compensation or what, but now I really enjoy saying these strangers names to them in conversation because not remembering people's names had always been one of my most embarrassing experiences.

Dr Butler's comments on the loss of intellectual & social stimulation plus the loss of purpose really struck home. Even though I thought I'd intellectually prepared myself for retirement - it has taken me six years of struggle to come to terms with it - I've resisted being just "busy" and have a range of interests but am still searching for a "community of minds" - finding TGB recently has been very helpful

This is a great post. We jokingly refer to our age when something slips our minds. I for one am not going to do that any more. I am so blessed to have a husband who engages in stimulating conversations. We verbally engage daily.
I really like this passage you quote: "your brain continues to regenerate nerve cells, including neurons and other so-called neural lineages." We don't just put the ol' brain out to pasture when we reach a certain age; we continue to use it and that old saying about teaching old dogs new tricks... We are still teachable.

This chapter sparked a wonderful idea for 'cognitive calisthenics': memorizing favorite passages from Shakespeare, five to ten lines at a time.

This is the third morning I've devoted 15 minutes to this exercise. I've been doing it with my morning coffee, and it's a marvelous way to start the day. (I'm starting with the Chorus speeches from Henry V, which are dazzlingly, breathtakingly good.)

I'm still working fulltime as a reporter and personal finance columnist, so my brain gets plenty of daily exercise already. But I think Dr. Butler is right about the importance of incorporating new activities into our daily lives.

For me, Shakespeare has been a lifelong passion. So this is something I already know and love. But it's also a challenge and an intense pleasure to commit to memory passages I don't yet know by heart. (Naturally, this involves reciting the words aloud, savoring their beauty and richness.)

Like Ronni, I've never been particularly attracted to 'brain games' for their own sake. To me, this is a perfect solution. It's not a HUGE challenge (I memorized many passages in my youth, and Shakespeare is easy to learn by heart) so it won't become frustrating. I can take it at whatever pace I want. It engages my emotions as well as my mind. And it's rewarding both in process and in outcome.

My recommendation for everyone who has outgrown crossword puzzles: Memorize some of the work of your favorite poet. It feels great!

Become an Adobe Photoshop expert. Its steep learning curve works the brain like climbing a mountain works the body. At least that's how it feels when you're following a lengthy tutorial. And then when friends and relatives "ooh" and "aah" over how wonderful your photos look, your brain will bask in the glow, its neurons happily snapping like Rice Krispies.

I'm not much of a mind-improvement games fan. I suppose they do some good, but I'd rather read, walk or post responses on TGB and the several other blogs I contribute to (some may question the term contribute). I also still work part time which definitely helps keep me on my game.

I just bought Dr. Butler's book and have skimmed through it (with the intent to read it more thoroughly over time). He has some great strategies, and they certainly worked for him because he lived a full life right up to his demise at age 88.

At this point I'm with Hattie, Technobabe and Rain: keep putting one foot in front of the other, engage in intelligent debate with your spouse or partner, if you have one (my husband and I debate the "state of the nation" all the time, discouraging though it may be in the age of Limbaugh, Beck and Palin) and beware information overload!

One other thing that works for us: Cats! We have three. Feeding (3 different food preferences), brushing, petting, cleaning the litter boxes and caring for our 13 Y/O kitty who has renal problems definitely engages our time and attention. But it's well worth it. We love them, and they love us. I think having pets in general is recommended as a healthy thing for older people who like animals and are able to care for them.

I learnt from this post we cannot let our minds rot.There are many ways to stay mentally active and often we just need to take the first step.I read,write and for fun play Jeopardy and beat my husband on a daily basis(in this game only)

I got behind this week, ummm, learning how to use a new scanner. Each day has been another blast from the past as I continue to scan our family's slides from late 40's onward. I could have cleaned the house each day after work. I didn't.
I enjoyed reading everyone's comments today.
My change goal should be, will be to get more exercise. I've learned how to get NPR podcasts onto my Nano (baby Ipod) and enjoy those while treading away on the treadmill. Our radio reception is sporadic so being able to listen/learn and exercise all at one time makes me feel accomplished!

I've not gotten into crossword puzzles or other games much, but I love research, blogging, writing song lyrics, memorizing poems and pieces from my musical play on aging and other literature, writing memoir essays, reading memoir, philosophy and poetry, performing and public speaking. Sometimes names, titles of books or movies or particular words are not immediately available. I tell myself and whoever I am talking with, It's there, I just have to rustle the cards in the filing cabinet to get it moving up to the front. That in itself helps to stimulate recovery it seems. The filing system is full of info and it takes a bit longer to access it at times.

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