The other day, I was having a particularly enthusiastic conversation with a dear friend in his 70s over his latest short story. An avid writer, he delighted in sharing with me how his main character was developing.
He stopped mid-sentence, saying, “Darn, I can’t remember if he [the character] said that when he was trapped in the cave or as he escaped.” I shrugged, “So?” My friend then muttered, “I hate getting old.”
We forgot plenty of things in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. But once we cross that 60-something threshold, we begin to attribute any mental hiccup to our age. When we were younger, we didn’t do that.
We assumed we were momentarily distracted, or had too much on our minds, or some other non-age-oriented reason. But hit 60+ and the phrase “age-related cognitive decline” raises its ugly specter in our thoughts entirely too often.
But here’s the thing. However age impacts our individual mental processes, there is a way to at least diminish such decline, if not totally arrest it. How?
Simple, no? In theory, yes, but in reality, it proves challenging. After all, how many of us long to get out on that running track, jump on that bicycle, or shake-rattle-and-roll in a dance class?
Much less do so consistently, day-in day-out, year-in year-out? Yet recent research shows that consistent aerobic exercise does remarkable things to our brains over time.
As you exercise to where your heart rate rises, your lungs work harder to get sufficient oxygen into your body. Your heart pumps that oxygenated blood throughout your body and your brain.
Your brain, in turn, greedily uptakes glucose or other carbohydrates – the brain’s fuel – as your body continues to exercise. Your brain now uses this fuel to build more neurotransmitters, and that’s where the magic happens.
New neurons are formed, and existing neurons get healthier, especially in the regions of your brain associated with memory, general intelligence, planning, problem-solving, balance, and co-ordination. The upshot, “a younger-appearing brain.”
Imagine where Shirley Radecki would be if she’d figured she was too old to do what it takes, not only physically but mentally, to climb mountains or swim competitively.
Shirley, at 90, won two medals as a swimmer in the 2019 National Senior Games – the women’s 50-yard backstroke gold medal and the women’s 100-yard backstroke silver medal. This, after skydiving at 85 and climbing 14,000 feet up Mount Kilimanjaro at 87.
Her regular drill is swimming and golf. Think about it: the brain power it takes to remember technique, plan ahead, problem-solve, and maintain balance and co-ordination are all critical to the ability to engage in the activities Shirley enjoys, much less win at them.
This is not to say that everyone should undertake such rigorous exercise in order to achieve a “younger-appearing brain.” Nor is exercise the answer to all potential frailties.
But exercise most definitely is a terrific adjunct, not only to maintaining our physical strength as we pass through the years, but to maintaining and even enhancing our mental strength.
So yes, we may groan as we heave ourselves out of bed or off the couch to go to that Zumba class, or jog, cycle, or whatever else gets our body going and our heart rate up, but it is so worth the effort.
And after all, once we’re cycling, running, or dancing, we almost always exclaim, “Wow! This really feels good!”
How do you motivate yourself to exercise? Have you noticed a difference in brain function after regularly exercising versus not exercising? What are good “beginner” exercises to help get in the habit of routine physical activity? Please share with our community and let’s have a discussion.