The Best Science-Backed Strategies For A Strong Mind As You Age

Fortune Well June 6, 2024


The Best Science-Backed Strategies For A Strong Mind As You Age

Sixty-two-year-old founder Marie Jerusalem has never felt more able to adapt to the changing demands of the corporate world. “My body’s not as agile as it used to be, but mentally I’m stronger today than I’ve probably ever been in my entire career,” she tells Fortune

At 57, Jerusalem was let go from her chief people officer role in private equity. But she wasn’t financially, or emotionally, ready to retire. After working for a few years as a business consultant in HR, she pivoted to launch Rocket50, a membership community and job search platform that assists older workers. To get her business off the ground, she had to quickly acquire a host of new skills—from integrating AI to creating marketing and social media strategies. 

Jerusalem rejects the notion that older people don’t want to learn new ways of doing things, and credits the demands of launching a business—gaining new skills and engaging with others—for boosting her confidence and mental resilience. 

People often assume the mind does not work optimally with age. While there are some normal age-related declines in thinking speed and attention, people’s decision-making and abstract reasoning skills may actually improve with age, according to research from the National Institute on Aging and the Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC).

It’s good news, as employees age 55 and older are expected to constitute more than a quarter of the workforce over the next decade, and Americans are increasingly working past retirement age either because they want to stay engaged or because finances and caregiving duties make it impossible not to. Regardless of why they’re working, they all have one thing in common: They want to stay mentally sharp. Fortunately, the brain is adaptable, and experts say some daily habits can help people maintain cognitive resilience well into older age. 

The basics

Sleep is critical for everyone’s health, but it’s especially important for the aging brain. “Sleep disturbances have been associated with cognitive impairment and decreased physical function,” says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, director of the CUIMC Center of Excellence for Sleep & Circadian Research. 

While seven to nine hours of shut-eye per night is the gold standard, about a third of older adults don’t meet the minimum, according to a study published in BMC Public Health. Experts recommend sticking to a regular sleep and wake schedule, and developing a nightly wind-down that includes limiting screen time and engaging in a calming activity, in addition to any other doctor-recommended interventions. 

Research has also long spotlighted the role of exercise in protecting vital brain function. Movement helps counter age-related shrinkage of the brain’s hippocampus, which is responsible for memory. 

It doesn’t take much activity to see positive results: A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that even 10 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous movement like brisk walking, biking, or hiking can improve mental processing, such as planning and completing tasks efficiently. Exercise also helps reduce sleep problems like insomnia.

A friendly neighbor

Maintaining strong friendships and relationships can feel at odds with work and caregiving duties. However, having coffee with a colleague, volunteering in your community, or hosting a family dinner will help keep the brain stimulated. 

“Social activity protects against a variety of negative health outcomes in older age, including cognitive decline, dementia, and even early mortality,” says Patricia Boyle, PhD, a trustee of the McKnight Brain Research Foundation and a neuropsychologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago. It may even maintain the brain’s resilience in the face of disease, she adds. 

What’s more, socializing, especially across generations, expands people’s perspectives, which invigorates the mind as one considers new ways of thinking, explains Dr. Tara Swart, a leading neuroscientist and author of The Source: Open Your Mind. Change Your Life.

Lifelong learning

The brain keeps developing well into old age. But the brain plateaus when people don’t engage in attention-intensive activities, Swart says. Launching a business, like Jerusalem did, is one such activity, but you don’t have to do something that intense to reap the benefits. 

“Learning a new language or a musical instrument is so difficult that it forces your brain to change,” Swart notes, strengthening executive functioning, and the ability to regulate emotions and solve complex problems. 

Even passively enjoying the arts can serve as a brain booster. The novel field of neuroaesthetics suggests that anything from listening to an opera to watching ballet to observing a painting can improve attention and ultimately lengthen one’s lifespan. “Those forms of beauty have a really beneficial impact on us,” Swart says. 

A fresh spin on aging

Research from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people who have a positive view of aging tend to live longer and have better physical and cognitive health. 

Maddy Dychtwald, author of Ageless Aging, says there are a host of positives that come with climbing the chronological ladder, such as wisdom and self-acceptance. “We have agency that we never thought we had before,” she says. 

Lesley Steinman, a research scientist in the health promotion research center at the University of Washington, cautions against using outdated terms, like “silver tsunami,” that perpetuate negative stereotypes about aging.

A researcher with the Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives (PEARLS), Steinman helps older adults stay engaged and play an active role in how they age. “People are often surprised that there’s quite a bit of things they can do, even though there still are systemic and structural issues making their lives difficult,” she says. 

Positive thinking can also help ease mental health issues like depression—of particular concern for aging adults who may be faced with health challenges or coping with loss and grief. Habits like sleeping well, exercising, and thinking positively may help reduce stress and depression, which in turn can sharpen cognitive performance. 

Jerusalem has no plans to retire anytime soon. She wakes up every day eager to learn and engage with older workers. She says the second she loses motivation, she’ll try something new. “Find your passion and stay engaged for as long as you can, because that’s what really makes you feel like you’re alive,” she says.

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