I read a fascinating article recently from the New York Times that discusses how some people over 65 experience the usual forgetfulness of old age, yet others somehow manage to remain sharp. My mom, who will be 89 this month, assures us she is falling apart. “Getting old is not for sissies!”, she reminds me. Not gonna lie. She has limitations. She is diabetic, doesn’t drive after dark. Yet, for her 82nd birthday, then again for her 87th, she climbed a mountain. She plays bridge a few times a week, plays the piano (beautifully), drives (in the daytime), texts like a teenager and downloads games with her I-phone, is active on Facebook, lives in her own home and has a sense of humor to make you laugh so hard your sides hurt. She’s a Superager.
“Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25 year-olds. For those of you who have a penchant for scientific details, I suggest you read the article, but if you’re like me and love a good bottom line, here it is: How do you become a superager? Research shows: work hard at something. The article says many labs have observed that the critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. So you can keep this part of the brain working well through vigorous exercise and mental effort.
Here’s the interesting part, however. When you increase the activity in this important part of the brain, you feel worse, not better, in the moment. Think about the last time you wrestled with a mental problem or pushed yourself physically. This is a great life lesson: Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment. It’s afterward that you feel good, whether emotionally or physically. Many a morning I have groaned as I laced up my tennis shoes for a walk or workout. Yet, NEVER, and I mean NEVER have I regretted the time spent working out! Perhaps you’ve felt the same way, too. Whether it was digging in with a mentally challenging problem or something physically challenging, it feels so good when you are done.
I love what the Marine Corps says: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
Superagers are like Marines: They push past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.
A fact: brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. The old saying is true: If you don’t use it, you lose it.
We all love to be happy. But sometimes, the greater happiness comes, not from indulging in inactivity, but in pushing through the hard thing and enjoying the benefits afterward.
This year, challenge yourself mentally. Learn a musical instrument. Learn something new on the computer. Try a new sport or hobby. Work your brain. You’ll be glad you did!