Keeping Your Brain Strong Through the Retirement Years

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What do you picture in your head when you hear the word “retirement”? Maybe you’re teeing up at dawn at your favorite golf course. Or perhaps you’re lounging poolside on a cruise ship. While most Americans hope to relax away their golden years, it’s crucial not to let your brain go on a permanent vacation, too.

In fact, the older you get, the more important it is to keep your mind sharp and slow the general cognitive decline that often comes with age. Like the rest of your body, the brain needs continual “exercise” to stay in shape. When you also consider the fact that we are living longer than ever before – the average life expectancy for men who’ve reached 65 years old is about 15 years, or age 80; for women, the number is nearly 20 years, or age 85 – that’s a lot of time you’ll need your brain to continue working as best it can, even though you no longer have the mental stimuli that comes with a 40-hour workweek.

New research from Concordia University has identified three factors that may determine how likely you are to stay mentally sharp as you get older. The study, which used data collected over four years from 333 recent retirees, suggests that the more you want to use your brain – and the more you enjoy doing it – the greater your mental acuity will be as you age. The three factors are:

The more one seeks out and enjoys cognitively demanding activities, the less likely one is to experience cognitive decline later in life.
Doing a variety of different cognitive activities helps boost brainpower post-retirement.
People who exhibit even mild signs of depression are more likely to show a decline in brainpower once they leave the office for good.

According to the study’s lead researcher, Larry Baer, “Retirement usually occurs right around the time when normal age-related declines in cognitive function come to the fore. So it is important to understand what is happening to brainpower during this period and to identify risk factors for mental decline, as well as factors that will help protect against it.”

So how can you translate these findings into your day-to-day life and set yourself up for a healthy, strong brain in your golden years? Here are a few ideas.

Explore your interests. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, consider taking Italian language lessons or cooking classes that will not only enrich your vacation, but exercise those brain synapses, too. If you’re hoping to spend more time with your grandchildren, explore ways to get more involved in their lives – maybe it’s learning how to use a new piece of technology.

Pick up a new hobby. Now that you’ve got more time on your hands, why not learn something new? It can be something simple that doesn’t involve other people, like knitting or playing word games. Or, better yet, make new acquaintances by checking out listings at the local YMCA or community center and finding a class that piques your interest. Forming and cultivating new relationships can do wonders for brain health – not to mention your post-retirement social life.

Mix things up. Variety is the spice of life, no matter how old you are. By pursuing a variety of interests, you’re opening yourself up to new experiences – and isn’t that what a great retirement is all about?

Mind your health,

Dr. Keith Black

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