Four simple activities to keep your brain young

As I often remind you, growing older has its perks. In fact, according to a new study, many key cognitive abilities don’t reach their peak until middle age or even later.

For this study, researchers assessed various cognitive skills in 48,500 men and women at different stages of life. They found some aspects of cognition continue to improve with age, while others begin to decline.

For example, on average, people think the fastest around age 18 and 19. Their short-term memory peaks at about age 25. And a person’s ability to read emotional states peaks in their 40s and 50s.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting…

Men and women in their 60s have more knowledge overall. In fact, “crystallized intelligence”–a measurement of accumulated knowledge and vocabulary–does not peak until people are in their late 60s or early 70s.

“It paints a different picture of the way we change over the lifespan than psychology and neuroscience have traditionally painted,” said study co-author Laura Germine.

As you may recall, the press tried to make President Ronald Reagan’s “advanced” age an issue in the second presidential debate with Walter Mondale in 1984.

President Reagan flipped the tables and smartly replied, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” He got a big laugh at that remark–and got re-elected handily. And he was definitely onto something important. With age comes wisdom…and crystallization of your intelligence, apparently.

Of course, Ronald Reagan later went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease. So, tragically, his crystallized intelligence and celebrated wit faded in his later years.

Fortunately, we know a lot more about how to keep your brain healthy than we did back then. And you might be surprised to learn how simple it can be to protect your brain. For example, in another new study, researchers found men and women who engage in four simple activities reduced their risk of cognitive impairment. Furthermore, the earlier in adulthood you begin these activities, the longer lasting the benefits.

For this study, researchers selected cognitively normal participants–who were 85 years and older at the study’s outset–from the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging in Minnesota. They thoroughly evaluated the patients using several different cognitive tests and a neurologic exam. They also evaluated the participants’ executive function as well as their language, memory and visual-spatial skills.

Next, they asked the participants about their hobbies. Many of the participants reported engaging in creative activities like painting and drawing. Others preferred crafts such as quilting, pottery, whittling, and woodworking. The researchers also recorded the participants’ social engagements as well as their computer use for internet searches, emailing, or shopping.

Of 301 participants in the study, 121 developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI) over the next four years. (A person with MCI doesn’t have clinical dementia. They experience some cognitive impairment, but they can still carry out their normal daily activities independently.)

Interestingly, men and women who engaged in artistic activities had a 27 percent lower risk of developing MCI. Men and women who engaged in craft activities had a 55 percent lower risk. Men and women who had busy social lives had a 45 percent lower risk. And, lastly, men and women who used the computer regularly had a 47 percent lower risk of developing MCI.

Perhaps we should expand the old expression, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” to include painting an apple, going to the market to shop for apples with a friend, or even using an Apple computer, apparently.

I try to stay creative on a daily basis by researching and writing on the computer. So perhaps I get double the protection. One can only hope!

Of course, there are limits to just how creative I can be, since the Daily Dispatch and my Insiders’ Guide newsletter are both non-fiction. I leave the fiction writing to some of the other health and nutrition “experts” I see on the internet.