Seniors Digest
Seattle-King County Edition
  August 1, 2004 

Keep Your Brain in Shape


Scientists who study the aging process and older adults themselves have long suspected that people who stay active and get plenty of mental stimulation are more likely to remain mentally sharp. More and more, science shows us that an active mind is a healthy mind.

Brain researchers are now unraveling the mysteries of the physical neurological processes themselves. We are more able than ever before to actually watch the brain in action. Research on how mental activity physically affects our brains continues to back up the old conventional wisdom: use it or lose it.

The brain is like any other part of our bodies. Certain predictable, natural changes take place as we age. But as with any other body part, taking care of and exercising the brain can help ensure that it remains healthy and vigorous into our later years.

Certain conditions and diseases that affect the brain (such as Alzheimer's disease, stroke, or Parkinson's disease) are unfortunately more common as we age. However, the stereotype that most older adults inevitably become "senile" and lose their mental edge is incorrect. In reality, older adults can do much to retain...and even improve...their mental ability

False Stereotypes About the Aging Brain

Researchers used to think that as we aged, we lost brain cells...and they could not regrow. But newer, more sophisticated, studies prove that certain important areas of the brain can grow replacement cells throughout life (a process called neurogenesis). This new growth can actually be increased by using our brains in various and stimulating ways.

More About Your Memory

Here's where one of the most persistent stereotypes about older adults is found! The "senior moment" of losing your glasses, only to find them around your neck...the realization that you don't recall people's names as rapidly as you did before...walking into a room and forgetting why you're there...these experiences might suggest that we "lose" our memory as we age. But in reality, older adults remember things in a different way than do younger people.

Briefly, memory is divided into two parts: short-term and long-term. Short-term memories are not preserved; instead, we hold onto them only as long as we need to, and then they are promptly forgotten. You probably recall what you ate for breakfast this morning but how about a month or a week ago?  Sometimes, of course, we forget things we wish we remembered, such as where we left the car in a huge mall parking lot! 

Long-term memories are organized and stored on a more permanent basis. Information is moved to the long-term memory from short-term when the brain deems it as significant for example, if you forgot where you left the car in that mall parking lot, got stuck in the rain, sprained your ankle and dropped your shopping bag, you might later remember exactly where you parked the car...because this memory "attached" to the rest of the recollection of the incident.

Older adults tend to transfer memories from short-term to long-term less frequently. Why? One theory is that the older brain is "smarter" and more efficient about making judgments about what it does and does not need to remember.

At about the age of 40, we also begin to take longer to retrieve specific words. This is in part because we know more words to choose from...but also, because the memory does become less responsive over time. However, there are trade-offs: we remember more slowly, but we gain in what is called wisdom instinctive, increased knowledge about life in general, about problem solving, and "people skills."

For More Information...

If you are interested in learning more, the Lundbeck Institute's Brain Atlas website offers an informative look at the complex make-up of the human brain.

Read on to the next article to find out 11 good ways to take care of your brain!

2004 Caresource Healthcare Communications


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August Seniors Digest Focus: Art as Part of Aging Well
Opening Hearts Through the Arts
Program Profile: Meaningful Aging at Elderwise
The Art of Creative Expression
Keep Your Brain in Shape
Good Things to Do for Your Brain
Famous Artists Wordfind
Links You Can Use
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