Staying mentally sharp



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Posted on June 8, 2009 at 5:30 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 24 at 6:36 PM

While a certain amount of cognitive decline is a normal part of the aging process, some seniors keep their wits long into their 70s, 80s and 90s. There are some things you can start doing now to stay mentally sharp in your twilight years.

These seniors are letting us in on a little secret. The keys to keeping our brains sharp in old age? An active body, social life and a thirst for knowledge.

That's the latest research on cognitive aging from the University of California, San Francisco. Researchers followed 2,500 seniors throughout their 70's and 80's. Most experienced a decline in brain function, but about 30 percent did not - and some even showed improvements. That group had a few things in common:

"Exercising, not smoking, volunteering or working, living with someone, and in general just remaining socially active," said Alexandra Fiocco, PhD, University of California, San Francisco.

That social connection is critical

"By engaging socially, you're keeping your brain active at the same time," said Fiocco.

Being a high school graduate also helped keep the brain functioning at full capacity, probably because graduates were more likely to continue the learning process throughout their lives. No one is suggesting you need to jump out of a plane, but a daily walk could help. The most important thing is to stay active, physically and mentally.

"All of us look for a sense of purpose in life, and that's important whether we're finding that in a job, whether we're finding that in volunteer work, or finding that in hobbies, or in relationships and friendships," said Dr. Matthew Wayne, University Hospitals Case Medical Center.

One other thing to keep in mind: Non-smokers were nearly twice as likely to stay mentally sharp as smokers.