PUMPING IRONY: Maintain Your Brain

There’s still hope for those of us who don’t always have our brains fully engaged.

Every night before she heads to bed, My Lovely Wife brews a cup of tea, settles into her living room chair (usually with a cat on her lap) and attempts to solve the day’s Sudoku puzzle. It’s a ritual often recommended by experts as a way of promoting good brain health and avoiding dementia and Alzheimer’s in your later years.

Before Sudoku arrived on these shores, she cranked through the crossword each day, and before she discovered crosswords, I suspect she was staying up late solving those annoying hidden-word puzzles they used to print in our grade-school Scholastic magazines. She’s always enjoyed using her brain.

I’ll be the first to admit that MLW is brighter than I am, so it’s likely that all her late-night puzzling probably has had some impact on her mental acuity. But there’s good news for those of us whose brains aren’t always fully engaged: There’s still time to get your noggin into top shape.

According to a recent article in Trends in Cognitive Science, researchers at Umea University in Sweden suggest that what we do to promote brain health in old age has a larger impact than what we did earlier in life. “Although some memory functions do tend to decline as we get older, several elderly show well preserved functioning and this is related to a well-preserved, youth-like brain,” explains lead researcher Lars Nyberg.

The study counters the conventional approach to cognitive decline, which is to focus on understanding how the brain compensates for memory loss and the like. Nyberg and his colleagues suggest that elderly people can actually prevent such decline from occurring. “Some older adults show little or no brain changes relative to younger adults, along with intact cognitive performance, which supports the notion of brain maintenance,” he explains. “In other words, maintaining a youthful brain, rather than responding to and compensating for changes, may be the key to successful memory aging.”

And the best way to keep your brain firing on all cylinders as you age, says Nyberg, is to remain engaged in the world — socially, mentally and physically. “There is quite solid evidence that staying physically and mentally active is a way towards brain maintenance,” he says.

I’m not going to start puzzling over the Sudoku, and I never had the patience — or the vocabulary — for crossword puzzles, but it’s good to know that my daily workout, my challenging job, and even conversations with my brilliant wife might just be enough to keep my synapses firing a while longer.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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