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Workouts To Keep You Mentally Agile

The use-it-or-lose-it principle applies not only to the maintenance of muscular flexibility, but to the maintenance of a high level of intellectual performance as well. Just as physical exercise plays a crucial role in how your body stands up to age, how you exercise your mind while you’re young greatly affects your mental and emotional shape later on.

Although much of the material on aging contains long lists of the ways mental capacity declines with age, experts are now questioning these “findings”. Many of the studies on which they were based, it turns out, were drastically flawed. They didn’t take into consideration that hidden illness, the side-effects of medications, a lower level of education to begin with or simply the greater familiarity of the younger groups with test-taking had put the older groups at a disadvantage. Their poorer performance, which had been chalked up to inevitable intellectual declines with age, was actually due to unfair comparison.

In addition, many declines in mental abilities that once seemed inevitable and permanent have now been shown to be reversible. For instance, reaction time, a measure of how quickly one translates thought into action, can be speeded up by practice and motivating reinforcement. The bottomline is that many abilities once thought to diminish in fact do so little or not at all. And some actually improve.

Late-life brain gains

Foremost among the faculties that bloom in later years in healthy people (those free of disease affecting the brain, such as stroke or Alzheimer’s disease) is what psychologists call “crystallized intelligence,” the ability to evaluate information in light of past experience in order to make decisions and solve problems – what we used to call “wisdom”. We depend on it, for example, to understand newspaper editorials or to solve problems where there is no single “right” answer. Crystallized intelligence, says John Horn, a psychologist at the University of Denver who has done some of the principal research on it, keeps growing even through the sixties, the oldest age group he has tested.

By contrast, “fluid intelligence,” the capacities involved in seeing novel relationships, as in learning chess, or mastering complex new procedures such as how to use a personal computer, peaks early in life, around the twenties, and declines gradually thereafter. But, says Dr. Horn, the main effect of this drop in fluid intelligence seems to be that it takes longer to learn how to do new tasks – not that we can’t learn them. That is, we can compensate for the decline by simply taking more time to do things. Other mental capacities that seem to increase over time include “world knowledge”, including facts (galaxies are part of star systems) and practical information (the best way to get a loan). Such knowledge is acquired during one’s lifetime from both formal learning and day-to-day experience.

Studies have found that although the greatest increases in world knowledge occur before the age of 50, there is no decline thereafter. Even more important, however, is how well people use that knowledge. Here age pays: The older you get, researchers have found, the more efficiently you can draw on your storehouse of facts.

Your mental machinery

The biological basis for this continuing mental agility is that the brain itself seems to age well, at least in people who stay physically healthy. The old belief that with age the brain loses some vast, debilitating number of brain cells has proven to be a myth. Marian diamond, professor of physiology/anatomy at the University of California who tested the grain cell-loss theory, found there was indeed some loss, but the greatest amount occurred before adolescence, not in old age. After this initial marked loss, the rate throughout life was not significant.

Other research on brain functioning shows similar findings. One study conducted at the National Institute on Aging used new scanning techniques to measure the rate of metabolic activity of glucose, the brain’s primary energy source, throughout the brain. When researchers compared brain activity in healthy men, age 21 to 83, they found no difference. The energy metabolism of old brains worked as effectively as young ones.

The facts, then, show that in healthy people, the mental machinery has no glaring defects in later life. But for it to work most efficiently in those years, what you do now can make all the difference:

  • Read, read, read. A German study of elderly people found that the verbal I.Q. scores of a better-educated group increased significantly when they were re-tested several years later, while the scores of a less-educated group actually dropped over the same period. A possible explanation: The well-educated people had a lifelong habit of reading. Fact: The more you use a mental faculty, the stronger it becomes. Point: Get in the habit of reading widely – newspapers, magazines, and books. Thrillers will do in a pinch, but more challenging reading matter will stretch your verbal intelligence more, especially if you look up new words instead of skipping over them. Other good bets: brain-teasers, cross-word puzzles, word games.

Another way to stretch your intellect is to become a lifelong student. Try evening courses, seminars or workshops in subjects that intrigue you. Doesn’t matter if it’s calligraphy or computers, as long as it’s new to you.

  • Increase your circle of friends. In a large study on aging, Dr. Warner Schaie, Professor of human development in Pennsylvania University found that the people who fared best in their later years were those who had the most active social lives, inside and outside their immediate family circle. Staying socially involved is especially important for women, who, statistics show, are likely to outlive their husbands and find themselves alone in later life. A large circle of close friends can take up the slack, but such friends cannot be cultivated overnight. Since the dearest friends are often the old ones, it pays to stay in touch with people you feel most fond of, and to keep track of them.

  • Be flexible and open to new experiences. Dr. Schaie’s study of close to 3,000 adults also found that those with a flexible attitude in their earlier years enjoyed the greatest mental well-being in later life.

What’s the prescription for relaxing a rigid identity? First, don’t typecast yourself. Keep to a minimum the number of labels you wear. You can acknowledge that you goofed on a do-it-yourself car repair without classifying yourself as “not mechanical”.

The next step is to break unrewarding patterns you may already have fallen into. Of course, fixed attitudes and behaviours can be hard to dislodge. Their very familiarity can make them comfortable despite the consequences. What to do? You can begin to loosen up in a problem area of your life by trying new things in other, easier-to-change areas. Plunging into something new can help unjam your outlook generally. Take a new route to work. Re-arrange your bedroom. Novelty is gratifying in itself, but it also permits you to see yourself anew, proving you can step outside your habits while retaining your basic identity. Such experiments help increase flexibility in another way, by demonstrating that the anticipatory anxiety you have about taking new approaches is exaggerated and manageable.

  • Examine your own attitudes toward aging. “We each have an ‘elder’ within,” says California psychologist/gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, “It is composed of the myths and beliefs we have about growing older. Many people never nourish themselves with positive images of aging.” The result, he says, can be “psycho-sclerosis,” hardening of the attitudes. It can be psychologically just as lethal as arteriosclerosis, he adds leading people to feel unprepared, angry or depressed when the reality of aging hits home. The antidote: finding a positive role model, someone you know (or know of) who is one of those marvelously vital people, living proof that you, too, can age well.

  • Set goals and go for them, now. Developing a plan of action, and achieving it, is one way to ensure contentment in later life. The data shows that people who have adapted well during their younger years adapt well later on. They key is to figure out, now, what you want and to develop the social and intellectual skills to get it. Then the older years will take care of themselves.

Backup for this advice comes from a study of intellectual performance in young and old adults conducted by Margie Lachman, a Brandeis University psychologist. She found that, in both groups, people’s attitudes towards their own abilities were strongly tied to their scores. Young or old, those who had a sense of “self-efficacy” – the feeling that what happens to them is within their control and that they can do well at most things if they try – showed the greatest intellectual vigor.

This sense of self-efficacy is crucial in one’s later years because it can counter defeatist attitudes that otherwise tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Where does this special brand of confidence come from? From repeated successes throughout life. Can-do attitudes are the result of a lifetime of experience.

Perhaps the best advice comes not from a researcher, not a gerontologist, but from a voice of experience. At 85, Kentuckian Nadine Stair set down these words in a prose poem called, “If I Could Live It Over… ” “I’d dare to make more mistakes next time. I’d relax… I would take more chances… I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.”

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