TIMI GUSTAFSON | To stay sharp, learn something new and difficult

 For Baby Boomers approaching old age, there is all sorts of advice available how to stay physically and mentally fit. Fear of decline is particularly common in this generation that has long been used to so many advantages their forbearers could never fathom. Yet, health threats to both body and mind are as real as ever, and solutions are far from guaranteed. Ideas are plentiful, but which ones do really make a difference?

 Especially keeping their mental health intact is a high priority among today’s seniors. Falling prey to a debilitating disease like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia is a frightful prospect, and there is much interest in preventing such ailments from happening. Staying mentally engaged through challenging and stimulating tasks and games is highly recommended by experts, but a clear understanding of how and to what extent the brain actually can benefit from such activities is still amiss.   

 For the longest time even scientists believed that the natural aging process inhibits our mental capacity from improving, i.e. through learning. Lost brain cells were considered irreplaceable and growth of new ones practically impossible. Eventually, those assumptions have been proven false. As we know now, brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity), meaning the brain’s ability to modify and restructure itself, persists, albeit to varying degrees, throughout a person’s entire lifespan.

 By receiving, processing and retaining information, new connections between brain cells, a.k.a. synapses, are continuously formed and added to existing ones. Over a lifetime of learning new skills, languages, or other abilities, the underlying brain functions manifest themselves in ever tighter networks, known as synaptic density. The more this density develops over time, the better the brain performs – and keeps performing as it matures.  

 To be sure, not all types of mental (and physical) activities are equally effective in keeping the brain sharp and able to protect itself against decline, says Dr. Zaldy S. Tan, medical director of the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and author of “Age-Proof Your Mind, Detect, Delay and Prevent Memory Loss Before It’s Too Late” (Warner Books, 2005).

 Menial work and repetitive tasks that neither challenge nor entertain the mind won’t help and may even have adverse effects in the long run, he warns. By contrast, expanding one’s knowledge or interests through continuing education, reading, playing musical instruments, mastering complex games and other cerebral pastimes can tremendously contribute to a brain’s health and well-being. Also, as studies have shown, learning can have a positive impact on self-esteem and outlook on life as well as foster curiosity and creativity.

 “Use it or lose it” applies to the brain as much as to any other muscle in the body, Dr. Tan explains. The more you keep pushing yourself – for example by learning foreign languages, computer programs, or sports you haven’t played before – the mentally fitter and better prepared for your later years in life you will be.

 Of course, there is no guarantee that age-related dementia or memory loss can be warded off by one’s own efforts. But the odds are certainly not worse compared to simply letting nature take its course.  

TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian, health counselor, newspaper columnist, and blogger. She’s the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Her website is www.timigustafson.com.