George Burns, the comedian who lived to 100 years of age, once quipped, “By the time you’re eighty years old, you’ve learned everything. You only have to remember it!” What Burns may not have known—and what those of us who worry about the effects of aging on the mind may not realize—is that learning is one of the most effective ways to keep memory and thinking skills sharp as we age.
A recent study titled ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) found that five years after a group of 3,000 volunteers had gone through eighteen hours of instruction in cognitive exercises, their thinking skills improved. The volunteers, aged 65 and older, underwent a series of trainings focused on memory, reasoning, and speed of processing.
Michael Marsiske, a principal investigator in the study, noted, “What we clearly show is that these short mental workouts improve performance, and that improvement is detectable even five years later.”
Short mental exercises are available to all of us: we can, for example, spend fifteen minutes a day working on crossword or Sudoku puzzles or memorizing foreign words and phrases in preparation for a trip abroad.
Another way to think about aging and cognitive ability is to imagine that the best way to age is to bring a well-exercised brain with us. An article published in the New York Times in January 2007 reported the following: “The one social factor researchers agree is consistently linked to longer lives in every country where it has been studied is education.”
With this new emphasis on learning and “brain calisthenics,” it’s important to keep in mind that the brain cares for the mind as with a partner. The body, too, needs exercise. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, which, according to researchers, uses 25 percent of the oxygen that enters the body. Exercise also eases depression, a frequent companion to an inactive body.
Staying active in a number of ways—thinking about new subjects, playing challenging games, taking daily walks—seems to be the right way to shore up our minds for a fulfilling future. If we do so, we improve our chances of beating the odds as George Burns did and give ourselves the opportunity to live, learn, laugh, and remember for years to come!