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:
- Cognitive calisthenics
- Reconfigure your brain
- 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 SharpBrains.com and Luminosity.com (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.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lewis LeMaster: Dad's Homemade Sauerkraut and Beer