“No pain, no gain.”
You’ve heard that before or, possibly, its corollary, “No strain, no gain.”
Usually, those expressions apply to physical workouts at the gym or health club. Would it surprise you to learn they also apply to maintaining a healthy brain?
To keep your mental skills in top shape, scientists say, living a mentally active life is essential.
Any brain exercise is better than nothing, but challenging activities are far more effective, says Dr. Anne Fabiny, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
In one of the newsletters published by the medical school, she avers that playing endless games of Scrabble with the computer or exchanging books regularly at the library may not be enough.
Just as in physical weight training, you must work beyond what is easy and comfortable.
“If it’s too easy,” Dr. Fabiny says, “it’s not helping you.”
All of us spend much of our life creating cognitive reserve, that is, networks of connections between brain cells. Experience and learning build and maintain these connections.
Dr. Fabiny says that when you are learning new things, you create neural pathways.
As you get older, that’s “hugely important,” she says in order to keep neural networks in the best working order.
Taking on a challenge like learning to speak a foreign language can be difficult, but the benefits are great, she believes.
Traveling to a city or country you haven’t been to before can be beneficial, because that forces you to cope in a new environment.
If you’re ensconced in a comfort zone, you typically avoid unfamiliar people and situations, resulting in social isolation. That often contributes to mental decline.
Dr. Fabiny’s advice: Get involved with an organization that puts you in touch with a variety of people in a new and stimulating environment.
“Talking and interacting with people takes energy and makes you work harder, which stimulates your brain,” says Dr. Suzanne E. Salamon, associate chief for clinical geriatrics at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Conversation can be a challenging activity, for it requires attention, listening, reasoning, language, and memory.
“It involves mental gymnastics,” says James Lubben, director of the Institute on Aging at Boston College.
“And you have to stay abreast of topics like the news, weather, sports, and politics.”
In addition, social engagement can guard against future losses of “social capital,” as friends move away or even pass away.
“You can have all the 401ks in the world,” Lubben says, “but without friends you are going to be greatly impoverished.”
Healthy brain aging is a mandate for the Creative Retirement Institute (CRI), the lifelong learning program at Edmonds Community College.
No, we can’t offer you foreign language instruction, but we can offer you other stimulating classes plus companionship.
Each term, there are more than 30 non-credit, college-level courses, all designed to give your brain a good workout.
Volunteer opportunities abound at CRI, whether you’re good at numbers, planning, marketing, clerical work, or technical assistance like audio-visual support.
To get involved, all you have to do is become a member and show up. You’ll receive a warm welcome.
Worth looking into?
For more information phone CRI at 425-640-1830. This program is open to all adults, regardless of educational background.