4 Lifestyle Factors That Build Mental Fitness

If I told you that there are 4 areas of your life that determine how mentally sharp you’ll be in your 80s, and beyond, would you be willing to make a few changes to boost your advantage?  I’m betting your answer is Yes.  So I put together those 4 things in this mini-report so you can see what areas of your life might need a little tweaking.

4 Ways To Stay Mentally Fit in Later Years

There are a few sayings going around these days – “60 is the new 40” and “70 is the new 50”.  As a doctor, I believe that, today in 2014, there’s a lot of truth in those concepts.  People are, thankfully, living longer and more healthy with each passing decade.

But, not only are people living longer, they’re staying younger feeling, behaving and looking  much longer.   Innovative changes in healthcare have given us a greater understanding of how to treat and prevent many of the disabling conditions that have typically affected people over 50.  In addition, knowledge of how personal lifestyle choices affects aging has also contributed to improving both physical and mental fitness.

Researchers out of the University of California, San Francisco, tell us that there are 4 distinct areas of your life that influence how mentally sharp you’ll stay in your later years.  After all, what’s the benefit of living longer if impaired mental capacity won’t allow you to enjoy it?

The really interesting thing, I believe, about this study, Staying Sharp:  New Study Uncovers How People Maintain Cognitive Function in Old Age, American Academy of Neurology, is that all of these factors are not carved in stone.  They all can be improved upon to give you the greatest advantage as you get older.  Let’s look at them individually.

1.  Education.  The UC researchers say that at least a high school education, and a 9th grade literacy level is important to staying sharp as you get older.  But just because you didn’t go further with your education when you were younger, doesn’t mean you can’t improve your education level now that you’re older.  Reading books is a great, and simple, way to start.

Returning to school and learning – anything – is an amazing brain cell stimulant and memory booster in older individuals, says research out of Oxford University.  As well, teaching something you know also helps develop sharper cognitive skills, says a study out of Johns Hopkins University.  Take a class just for fun or go work on that college degree.

2.  No-Smoking.  This one’s literally a “no brainer”.  Smoking kills brain cells and along with it your memory and ability to process information as you get older.  Smoking more than doubles your risk of developing dementia, Alzheimer disease,  Parkinson’s disease in your older years, says a study out of the University of Finland in 2010.

Smoking is also a major risk factor for stroke which can seriously impair your mental functions.   If you smoke, quit. Quitting smoking can immediately start to improve mental functioning, especially memory, says a study out of Northumbria University in England.

3.  Exercise.  Many people don’t know this, but when you exercise your body, you also exercise your brain.  Aerobic exercise brings a renewal of oxygen to your blood which feeds and stimulates all your brain tissues.  The UC researchers report that older people who exercise at least once per week are 30% more likely to maintain their mental functioning than those who don’t.  Imagine how much you could boost your advantage percentage if you exercised at least 2-3 times per week? In addition, regular exercise improves your mood and helps fight depression as it releases “feel good” hormones like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in your brain.

A recent US News Health Report revealed that exercise also helps fight the effects of stress on your brain – like forgetfulness and inability to concentrate.  If that weren’t enough, exercise stimulates growth factor chemicals in your brain that help your brain produce new cells and create connections between them.  So, if you’re trying to improve your education levels, exercise will be a great assistant.

4.  Stay Social.  As people get older, life changes can occur like divorce, death of a spouse, friends, loss of a job, a move, etc and social isolation can occur.  The UC researchers report, as do many other studies, that staying socially connected is a huge cognitive booster as well as life extender in general.  People who stay socially active, the UC study says, are 24% more likely to maintain their mental sharpness later in life.  In addition, living with another person, and/or being involved in a happy romantic relationship also helps boosts positive cognitive functioning.

To improve your percentages, get out there and meet some new people.  Attend social events where you’re likely to meet new people, join groups that interest you (try Meetups.com); or maybe try one of the online dating venues for people over age 50.  Spending time with your kids/grandkids once a week can help too.  A recent study out of the North American Menopause Society found that seeing grandkids once a week helped grandmothers stay more mentally sharp.  But, I suspect, that grandpas would get the same benefit as grandkids can be a great source of fun and love in your life.

So there you are – 4 lifestyle factors that you can enhance and improve on to boost your chances of staying mentally sharp as you get older.  I would also add nutrition.  Eat a balanced diet with enough protein, vitamins, limit refined sugars, and drink enough water to keep your brain functioning at its optimal best.

Staying mentally sharp as you get older also helps you live longer in general, also says a 2011 study published in the Journal of Aging Research (Successful Aging in Older Women:  The Role of Depression and Cognition).

Stay Well,
Ron Blankstein, M.D.


Smoking Linked to Dementia, WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/smoking-cessation/news/20101025/smoking-linked-to-alzheimers-and-dementia

Quitting Smoking Improves Memory, http://www.livescience.com/16144-quitting-smoking-improves-memory.html

7 Mind Blowing Benefits of Exercise, http://health.usnews.com/health-news/diet-fitness/slideshows/7-mind-blowing-benefits-of-exercise/4

Grandmas Stay Mentally Sharp http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140408111715.htm


Ronald Blankstein, M.D.

Ron Blankstein, MD, FACC, FASNC, FSCCT, FASPC is the Director of Cardiac Computed Tomography, Associate Director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Program, Co-Director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Training Program, and a Preventive Cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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