An important part of longevity is keeping your brain and mind healthy as you age. There are many factors that can negatively impact cognition or cause early degeneration. A benefit of knowing what helps protect your mind and brain as you age is that those approaches can also improve your current life by increasing your empathy, psychological flexibility, and emotional resilience. In addition to well-known factors that protect healthy brain function such as improving your sleep, eating a healthy diet, and reducing stress, there are other, lesser-known factors that also make a significant difference, such as improving the quality of your long-term relationships. Let’s explore!
One way to keep your brain young as you age is by engaging in ‘neurobics.’ Neurobics is exercising your mind in ways that develop an expansion of neural pathways and complexity. To use a gym analogy, let’s say you go to the gym and exercise the same muscles with the same exercises every time. The muscles you don’t use will atrophy. It used to be thought that brain cells were static and limited across adulthood, but we know now that the brain generates new brain cells—called neurons—well into old age. It is true that you produce fewer neurons as you age, but according to a 2013 study, as many as 700 neurons are produced per day even in old age. To keep neuron production—and pathway quality—up, engage in activities that stimulate your brain in new ways. For example, by building puzzles if you normally watch TV, taking up painting, learning a new language, learning a new dance with your partner, or studying a new scientific discipline. Engaging in novel cognitive activities increases brain efficiency and plasticity, which protects against neurodegeneration and can enhance your quality of life.
Exercise has also been shown to have measurable cognitive benefits. Sustained aerobic exercise appears to stimulate the production of brain cells by releasing brain-derived neurotrophic factors, helping protect against early-onset Alzheimer’s and guarding against depression and anxiety. If you can combine exercise with novelty, you get a double boost of mental stimulation and aerobic benefit. You might think about taking up a new sport like tennis, ping-pong, or rowing, which can put you in new environments and call on a variety of physical reflexes.
Open Your Mind
To keep your mind young, we recommend working to keep an open mind, listening to young people, and trying to see the world through new and different perspectives. Psychological flexibility is part of what keeps the mind—and brain—young. When you get rigid around a perspective, you start to lose brain cells involved in the pathways you utilize less. Trying to see the world from multiple perspectives gives the mind a valuable workout, and can also increase empathy and theory of mind; the ability to identify your own and others’ feelings. Poor theory of mind tends to negatively impact relationships, whereas psychological flexibility helps you connect well with others. We recommend approaching your interactions with others and your relationships with humility and curiosity, which are two factors that will help keep you out of psychological rigidity and allow you to see your blind spots and learn new perspectives.
On the topic of relationships, relationship stress is one of the most neurotoxic forms of stress, meaning it degrades your brain cells. Stress, in general, works against keeping your mind and brain young, causing earlier-than-needed loss of function. Since stress produces inflammation and is linked with neurodegeneration, keeping your stress levels low in your relationship and in your life is helpful to maintaining healthy function of the brain and mind. On the other hand, a positive and fulfilling relationship has supportive neurological benefits. Not only does the comfort and support of a healthy relationship help you relax, but personality differences can also be held with complexity rather than with simplicity or defensiveness, additionally stimulating the mind without accompanying stress.
Social interactions are very helpful in maintaining a young mind and brain, possibly because of how the brain is globally activated during human-to-human interactions. In several studies, positive social interactions and having a large social network has been correlated with a lower risk of dementia. Deepening your ability to have close, meaningful relationships helps protect your mind and brain from early decline. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many individuals’ feelings of loneliness, and limited social contact significantly. To address these new times, we recommend online social groups that engage in a new activity such as D&D or other board games or joining a therapy group where you bond with others and can also learn to deepen relationship skills for more meaningful life relationships.
The quality of your emotional health also impacts the longevity and function of your mind and brain. Emotional intelligence is not taught in school, but it should be. Emotional intelligence, sometimes known as EQ, helps you have a healthier relationship with yourself and with others. If you can learn to identify your own feelings more clearly, you can better share your authentic self with others, elicit care and empathy, and bond more deeply in relationships. Understanding how to comfort others in their feelings, feel empathy for others’ experience and connect in ways that are emotionally supportive, all supercharge relationships, and consequently your sense of purpose and meaning in life.
To keep your brain and mind young, try new things, consider having discussions with people you don’t already agree with, and work on having healthier, more connected relationships. Therapy is one way to challenge your mind and habits, learn new perspectives, become aware of blind spots, and develop relationship skills for improved social interactions. The benefits of working to keep your mind and brain young pay dividends in your current life. All it takes to start is a willingness to stretch your regular tendencies and make yourself a little uncomfortable. Just like the gym!
John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at PRESENCE, an integrative wellness center supporting your mental, physical, and relationship health so you can heal, grow, and thrive in life through science-based psychotherapy and medicine.