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The Longevity Bible: 8 Essential Strategies for Keeping Your Mind Sharp and Your Body Young Excerpt from The Longevity Bible: 8 Essential Strategies for Keeping Your Mind Sharp and Your Body Young

by Gary Small, M.D.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that participating in leisure activities, such as playing board games, reading books, or doing crossword puzzles, cuts the risk for developing Alzheimer's disease by nearly a third. When scientists study animals raised in mentally stimulating cages -- those with lots of toys, mazes, and other distractions -- the animals not only have an easier time remembering how to navigate their mazes, but their brains' memory centers are much larger than those of animals brought up in standard-issue cages.

Several large-scale studies have found that people who engage in mentally stimulating leisure activities, along with other quality longevity strategies, not only feel happier and function better, but also tend to live longer. The most well-known longitudinal investigation of healthy aging, the MacArthur Study, found that people who remained mentally active -- doing puzzles, reading books, playing cards or other games -- had better quality of life and longer life expectancy than those who had less mental stimulation.

When scientists compare college-educated volunteers with those who have not attended college, they consistently find a lower risk for Alzheimer's disease among the more educated study volunteers. A recent brain imaging study found that with more years of education, we are better able to use the front part of the brain to augment mental prowess. This is a good argument for continuing education throughout our lifetimes.

The Sharper Mind

According to the scientific evidence, whenever we push ourselves to solve problems in a new way, we may be strengthening the connections between our brain cells. Each brain cell has dendrites. These minute extensions -- similar to branches of a tree -- pass information along from brain cell to brain cell. Without use, our dendrites can atrophy or shrink; but when we exercise them in new and creative ways, their connections remain active, passing new information along. Basically, any conscious effort to exercise your brain can potentially create new brain cell connections. And, remarkably, new dendrites can still be created even if old ones have already died.

Over the years, we learn more complex mental skills that eventually become automatic, so that our minds can perform certain mental tasks with less effort. As we gain experience, our minds become able to automatically take in the big picture without having to focus on every little detail. Take a look at the following paragraph:

Dont alwyas blveiee what yor'ue rdanieg becusae the hmuan mnid has phaoenmneal pweor. Aoccdrnig to uinervtisy rsceearchers, it deosn't mttaer inwaht odrer the ltteers in a wrod are plcead. Waht is improtnat is taht the frist and lsat letetrs rae in the corerct pclae.

You probably understood the message, yet the delivery was a mess. Our minds have learned to automatically perceive the meaning of something, even if details are missing or wrong. Systematic studies have found that older, healthy people with more experience are better and quicker at assessing an overall scene or picking out a face in a crowd than younger people, who tend to focus on details.

We can fine-tune these skills at any age with mental exercise. To make the most of our brain power and optimize mental sharpness, it is helpful to keep in mind what I call the P's and Q's for Sharpening the Mind: Presence, Persevere, Quality, and Question.

  • Presence. Staying focused on the present makes us more efficient in any given mental task. What is key to remaining present and on task is not just the ability to take in what's going on around us, but also being able to shut out what's not important.
  • Persevere. Sticking with a specific mental task builds learning and memory skills. You may start piano lessons today, but unless you continue to practice over the following weeks and months, you won't gain the mental benefits or the enjoyment of mastering the instrument. With perseverance, your memory skills will improve and you'll enjoy heightened confidence in your cognitive abilities.
  • Quality. When our minds focus on the qualities, details, and meanings of new information, we retain it longer and have a greater sense of control. This control allows us to organize the information and improves our learning abilities. If our hobbies and leisure activities have qualities that we value, they become more fun and fulfilling. Many people like to get involved in competitions, keeping a prize they value in mind during their activity. This may explain why competitive sports are so exciting for both the participants and the fans.
  • Question. Curiosity allows us to expand our mental horizons. Reading stimulating books and magazines, exploring unfamiliar places and hobbies, and continually probing and asking questions will keep our mental skills intact.

Applying the P's and Q's not only helps keep our mental lives active, but it allows us to develop resilience, the ability to recover from negative experiences. When we take chances and reasonable risks, explore new opportunities, and learn new skills, we also become better at bouncing back if we should fail in an endeavor. Being able to set and achieve new goals leads to greater self-confidence, personal strength, and a positive outlook (see Essential 2).

Risk-taking and thrill-seeking taken to the extreme are behaviors typical of adolescence, and with maturity most people learn to avoid dangerous activities, thus lengthening their life expectancy. The key is to find a balance -- a way to pursue novel experiences that expand the mind without going overboard. The following are a few activities to consider for keeping mentally sharp over the years.

  • Travel. If your inclination is to head for the beach and plug yourself into a lounge chair during your holidays, consider trying a different kind of vacation, maybe a sightseeing adventure to a destination you've never visited, or perhaps a stay at a self-realization spa or a dude ranch. Many vacation packages and cruises take visitors to new and exotic locations and enrich their experience with informative lectures on the region. Elderhostel ( is one of the world's largest educational and travel organizations for people age fifty-five and older.
  • Get creative. Learning a musical instrument or taking up oil painting are great ways to stimulate the artistic side of the brain, especially if you tend to be an analytical, left-brain type of person. Exploring your talents in right-brain creative pursuits will help keep your brain cells active and possibly protect them from future decline.
  • Challenge yourself. Take your mental pursuits to the next level. If you do only the easy newspaper crossword puzzles on Mondays and Tuesdays, push yourself and try the more challenging Thursday and Friday puzzles. If you're a whiz at putting together five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzles, buy a thousand-piece puzzle and get to work.
  • Take on a new hobby. Whether it's collecting stamps, knitting, climbing rocks, or French cooking, getting involved in a new hobby is a great way to expand the mind. Hobbies distract us from everyday worries and allow us to gain a sense of mastery in whatever area we choose to pursue. People who engage in hobbies are less likely to experience mental decline as they age than those who spend most of their spare time in front of the television.
  • Join a study group or book club. Some people like to study on their own, while others enjoy the interaction of a group experience. Book clubs and study groups are a popular way to expand your mental horizons and enjoy the company of like-minded learners.
  • Go back to school. Most colleges and universities have extension classes for part-time students of all ages. Our UCLA Center on Aging has a Senior Scholars Program that makes it easy for older adults to audit undergraduate classes. The intergenerational component of the program enriches the experience for both generations: The undergraduates benefit from the wisdom of their older classmates, who in turn enjoy the youthful energy of returning to a college campus and interacting with a new twenty-something generation.
  • Flex your brain. Try some Web sites, books, or magazines with puzzles designed to flex your brain muscles. Check out the upcoming mental aerobic exercises, as well as those in the Appendix, which will give you a taste of the range of mental teasers and encourage you to pursue more puzzles. Enjoy some mentally challenging games such as Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit, activities that also can be a fun social event.

Building Brain Mass

A recent study published in the journal Nature found that three months of mental training can alter brain structure and, in essence, build brain muscle. After the study volunteers were given MRI brain scans, they were taught to juggle -- a mentally challenging task. After three months of juggling, the brain scans were repeated. This time the scans showed significant increases in the volume of gray matter -- the outer rim of the brain that is responsible for thinking and complex reasoning. Either their brain cells had grown larger and developed more extensive connections, or the number of brain cells had increased enough to build brain bulk. However, when the volunteers gave up their new hobby, their brains shrank back to their previous sizes. You can build brain muscle but you have to continue your mental activity to sustain the benefits.

Excerpted from THE LONGEVITY BIBLE by Gary Small, M.D. Copyright (c) 2006 Gary Small, M.D. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.