I wrote this about my parents when I was 22:
‘They’ve been grandparents almost two years now. Grandparents twice over, that is, and a third expected momentarily. As I stepped through the doorway I was met by a heavy-sweet menagerie of home-cooked aromas. Outside, it was a crisp spring afternoon. Inside, it was a trifle too warm. They had both mellowed in recent years, but just now, for the first time, I felt as though I were entering a grandparents’ home. They’re growing old.’
When I wrote that closing line, I meant ‘old’ as a pejorative, not as a compliment.
My father was 52 at the time. He died at 60. My mother lived to be 85, developing dementia a few years before she died.
Paul Simon wrote this lyric into the song ‘Old Friends’ when he was 27 years old:
“Can you imagine us
Years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy”
Sally and I are 70. We quietly share park benches. It’s not strange at all.
On the other hand, Paul Simon will be 80 in October.
Our view of aging is curious, isn’t it? How must today’s 20-somethings view us? If we asked Paul McCartney today, would he say that 84 is the new 64?
In any event, heading toward our ninth decade, the goal is to be active, engaged, wise and interesting…a group of adjectives we don’t normally associate with the degenerative effects of dementia. The good news is that there appear to be things we can do to increase our chances of achieving those goals and of sidestepping our worst nightmare. In fact, we can now reduce our risk of dementia by some 40% by adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle. We can fight back against the prejudices and preconceptions of our younger selves!
Spoiler alert: I’m not one for miracle cures or for buying into ‘secret information that you can’t find anywhere else.’ As a former psychologist and researcher, I trust the science and want to see multiple studies heading in the same direction before I accept a conclusion as valid. So here are 4 recommendations for which there is a body of evidence supporting their efficacy:
- Take care of your heart. Your brain depends upon blood flow to provide nutrients and remove debris. There are 400 miles of blood vessels in your brain. You want every inch of them pumping at peak efficiency to prevent neuron damage and maintain synaptic connections. Adopt a heart-healthy diet; keep your stress levels in-bounds; keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check.
- Exercise. The current guideline is about 150 minutes of ‘huffing & puffing’ each week (e.g., 30 minutes/day x 5 days). Walking is fine, but you need to work up a sweat and breathe hard. Obviously, this is good for your heart, but I also suspect that its moderating effect on cognitive function is also related to the fact that it engages so many areas of your brain.
- Challenge yourself cognitively. Read books. Learn new skills. Change your routine. Solve puzzles. Take on-line courses or, better yet, once we are COVID-clear, take courses in person. There seems to be a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ aspect to how well our brains age, so try to be open to new experiences and challenges.
- Socialize. We are social animals and engaging with others engages our brain in ways well beyond any other activity. Just take a moment to think about all the ways you use your brain when sitting down for a meal with a group of friends. The complexity of negotiating a social context is stunning, invigorating, challenging…and fun!
That’s roughly where the research stands today. You can reduce your risk of developing dementia by about 40% if you adopt a lifestyle that also happens to be associated with increased longevity. You get double the bang for the buck: more years and better years.
Bottom line: We don’t have to accept the dire predictions of our younger selves. We can marshal the resources that got us this far to get us through the final years of our journey in good stead. It’s definitely worth a shot.
All of which gives a brand new meaning to Bob Dylan’s 1964 lyric:
“…I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.”
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