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A New Way of Thinking: Staying Sharp As We Age

Unlocking the secret to a long life and a sharp mind is easier than you imagine.

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My dad had a handy test for checking my grandfather’s mental acuity: he’d ask him about interest rates. Albert aced it every time. He didn’t just know the rate; he could explain how it got there and project future probabilities. The intellectual stimulation of the financial markets helped sustain my grandfather throughout his waning years. He read the dailies, kept up to speed on politics and bantered in two languages (French and English). With a nimble mind came a fit body. Until the end, Albert exercised every morning and prepared healthy meals for himself. He passed away in 1997, at 99 years old.

Given his combination of longevity and brainpower, my grandfather had a lot to be happy about. Lately, I’ve started watching my own father age. This past June, Paul turned 83. He and my mother, Doreen, who is a few months younger, live together, unassisted, in Edmonton. Paul volunteers on a number of committees and boards. He recently started auditing university courses, and he golfs daily, something he never bothered to learn until after he retired. He’s also active in the residents’ association for their neighbourhood, which has him regularly troubleshooting problems. I used to think all the bustle might be the death of my octogenarian dad. Now I know better: it’s what keeps him alive.

There are lots of great ways to stay sharp while the clock ticks away-reading, gardening, birdwatching, yoga, pottery-but new evidence suggests three specific activities can significantly raise the odds of enjoying our final decades. They might even be the most powerful antidotes to aging available.

Stephen Dyke is a 73-year-old retired physician living in Cape Breton, N.S. An avid boater, he became wary of going back on the water after a back injury four years ago. His wife suggested they learn Gaelic instead. Dyke admits grasping the language was very difficult-its complicated grammar and counterintuitive pronunciation make it tricky to pick up at any age-but he spent up to eight hours a day studying, and he and his wife now speak, read and write the language with ease. In fact, the couple spend their days entirely in Gaelic. “Our level of comfort is something I would never have predicted,” says Dyke.

Dyke, and the thousands of seniors taking foreign-language courses across the country, prove that there’s no age limit to picking up a language. Students in their 60s and 70s can-and do-become high-functioning speakers when they throw their full attention at the task. And research suggests the effort itself, irrespective of proficiency, brings big mental dividends. The reason? While struggling with foreign grammar and syntax might leave you feeling like your brain is short-circuiting, it’s doing the opposite: finding new neural pathways and shoring up old ones. More precisely, says Ellen Bialystok, it’s strengthening executive function.

Bialystok is a neuroscientist at Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute, a brain research facility in Toronto that is today one of the world’s top centres for study into memory and aging. Most of the scientists on staff have dedicated themselves to decoding executive function, the core set of cognitive skills that helps us recall where we put our keys, keep track of appointments and adjust to traffic when driving. Dubbed the brain’s CEO, it oversees our ability to weed out distraction and focus on a goal. Executive function is critical, in other words, for lifelong learning. You can’t pick up a new skill, or keep old ones, without it. It’s also key to a long, rewarding, independent life. “It’s the last cognitive area to mature in childhood,” says Bialystok, “and the first to go as we age.” That process of deterioration is at the heart of one of the most pressing questions in cognitive neuroscience: how do we improve executive function and maintain it longer?

For Bialystok, the answer is rooted in one of Canada’s cultural priorities: bilingualism. A series of studies she led over the last decade show that adult bilinguals vastly outperform their monolingual counterparts at multi-tasking-the constant practice of inhibiting one language while enabling the other keeps the executive function busier and more efficient. But the story doesn’t end there. Bialystok and her team discovered a bilingualism-enhanced executive function does something astonishing: it delays the symptoms of dementia.

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In a 2010 study, CT scans showed that bilingual people had to sustain twice as much brain damage before triggering signs of Alzheimer’s compared to those who spoke only one language-suggesting that bilingualism afforded patients the ability to function beyond the expected impairment. “Bilingualism exercises more networks; it branches out, recruiting other brain areas,” explains Tom Schweizer, a neuroscientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto who helped lead the study. “So if you’re hit with a devastating disease like Alzheimer’s, your brain compensates. It reassigns what’s broken-like memory function-to another area.”

A skill you practise provides greater benefits to executive function than a hobby, and recent evidence suggests bilingualism can stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s by about five years. “That’s better than any available pharmaceutical option,” says Schweizer.

If learning a second language keeps our executive function in fighting trim, Sylvain Moreno’s research reminds us that chords and scales are a language, too. A car crash at 16, and his total recovery from the resulting memory loss, left him curious about the brain’s power to relearn. Today a scientist with the Rotman Research Institute, Moreno has devoted the last decade to finding a link between music and executive function.

Having already used music to locate the “learning switch”-he was able to produce, in 20 days, up to a 14-point bump in IQ in Toronto preschoolers exposed to a computerized music program-Moreno wondered if the switch could be flipped for older adults.

He knew that seniors who had been professional musicians showed more rapid mental processing than those who never unpacked an instrument. But could he replicate the same effect without requiring seniors, often saddled with motor skill problems, to spend years studying the piano or guitar? Since music stimulates the same frontal-lobe network that processed words and syntax do, Moreno had a hunch executive function could be bolstered through singing. “Your voice is itself a musical instrument,” he says. “In playing it, you have to focus your attention, isolate the information that matters and act decisively.”

In the first study of its kind, his team is now working with retirement homes around Toronto, organizing residents into mixed choirs of 20 and training them for three months, measuring cognitive scores from their performances before and after the training. The research is ongoing, but Moreno confirms residents reap “significant” benefits to executive function. Along with better word recall, there were gains in attention span and self-control. Best of all, benefits last for up to a year after the sessions stop. “A lot of researchers still believe seniors have low brain plasticity, that you can’t teach these skills,” he says. “We’ve found the reverse.”

It’s the adrenalin rush and the joy of four-part harmony that led tenor Donald Blake, a 70-year-old retired political science professor, to join a Vancouver seniors’ choir called EnChor nearly six years ago. Aside from public concerts, EnChor visits assisted-living facilities, often performing for individuals who appear to have no awareness of what’s going on around them. “But when we sing,” Blake says, “sometimes you’ll see a finger moving or a foot tapping. Sometimes they even join in.”

“Friends used to say, ‘You must really have nothing to do in your work if you’re studying stress in old people,'” recalls Sonia Lupien, founder and director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at the Montreal Mental Health University Institute. “What are the elderly stressed about?” But up to 20 per cent of Canadian seniors will suffer depressive symptoms serious enough to warrant treatment. And all that stress, Lupien warns, has a devastating effect on executive function.

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Lupien didn’t start out studying stress: she’s a memory specialist. By the end of the 1990s, after her team had followed a large population of older Canadians for over 10 years, she discovered that 30 per cent of them were overproducing cortisol, a hormone released during chronic anxiety. Moreover, the overproduction of the hormone was found in seniors who were also experiencing memory loss. It turned out that prolonged exposure of the brain to cortisol had shrunk their hippocampus by up to 14 per cent.

No one thought that cortisol could access the brain. The finding suggested that memory loss experienced by older people was largely a factor of stress, not age. In fact, the damage Lupien was seeing was the toll taken by years of cortisol production-accelerated by age, because the brains of seniors became more vulnerable to the effect of the hormone. The damage to executive function is clear. The hippocampus consolidates short-term memory into long-term memory and plays a major role in learning. In fact, the hippocampus is one of the few areas of the brain that produces new brain cells as we age, and new learning helps those cells live. Unsurprisingly, hippocampal atrophy is also one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s.

But here’s where the situation starts to improve. A few years ago, a major U.S. study looking at allostatic load-the overall effect of chronic stress on the human body-confirmed Lupien’s finding that dangerously high cortisol levels, when produced for too long, impair memory retention. But it turns out that only one thing can significantly reduce allostatic load: face-to-face contact with others. The most practical way to strengthen executive function, in other words, is to have a full dance card: enrol in classes, join a knitting circle, play mah-jong, visit relatives, attend religious services.

And why stop there? While a busy social life can have a powerful effect on well-being, studies suggest the best all-around activity is volunteerism. Seniors who double up their good deeds-tutor children, say, while serving in a food bank-live up to 44 per cent longer than non-volunteers. In addition to improved mental health, volunteering reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes. In fact, the psychological and emotional returns are so powerful that one U.S. study found that people with chronic pain who volunteered experienced a drop in their suffering.

And 36 per cent of Canadian seniors aged 65 and older volunteer in some capacity, a critical mass that’s of particular interest to Nicole Anderson. A clinical neuropsychologist, the Rotman Research Institute scientist recently wrapped up a four-year research project that looked at the physical, psychosocial and cognitive effects of over 13,000 volunteer hours among 103 adults aged 55 and older. A popular theory for the health payoff of volunteering is its altruistic element, the so-called “helper’s high.” Anderson, however, hopes to prove that the complex and challenging nature of such activity plays a pivotal role. “If you’re doing charity work, you’re flexing your social and your cognitive muscles at the same time,” she explains. “Basically, volunteering overcomes the barriers to healthy mental functioning.”

Janet Finkelstein, a 66-year-old former nurse practitioner and rehab consultant, was one of the 33 volunteers who helped lead Anderson’s study. Altruism wasn’t the only reason she joined-she also wanted to stay sharp. “I’m part of a generation used to being active. We want continuous learning. We want opportunities that call upon our abilities. Did the volunteering help my cognitive skills? I don’t know. I still have trouble with people’s names! But hopefully I’ll have time to work on that.”

Five Tips for a Fit Mind

1. Struggling to remember a detail or date? Don’t spin your wheels: look up the answer. Reminding yourself of the correct response will help you hang on to information.

2. Studies show working in 25- to 30-minute bursts followed by a five-minute break boosts productivity by eliminating constant distractions.

3. An effective way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Translating the material into your own words helps new knowledge take root.

4. Devise a quiz after reading a chapter or hearing a lecture. Testing yourself strengthens neural pathways and produces better retrieval routes for remembering.

5. Cramming is a short-term fix. To improve long-term recall, wait two or three days between study sessions-a trick cognitive researchers call the “spacing effect.”