Secrets to Staying Sharp

By Marcy Franklin

Ever wonder how some people don’t seem to miss a beat in their older years while you can barely function without a to-do list? In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers tested 2,500 people over the age of 70 to measure their cognitive abilities. While half of the participants had a normal decline in brain function due to age, 30 percent showed no change—or even a rise—in brain function. Their secrets?

Study participants who exercised once or more a week were 30 percent more likely to maintain brain function than those who didn’t. The reason, says the study’s lead researcher, Alexandra Fiocco, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at San Francisco, is that exercise “results in the development of new brain cells, namely in the hippocampus, an important brain center for learning and memory.”

Researchers found that having a high school education helped participants stay sharp. But formal schooling isn’t necessarily a must “It’s the act of continually challenging your brain that matters most,” Fiocco says. “I think education may reflect individuals who are more likely to challenge themselves.”

Staying Smoke-Free
Smokers were twice as likely to lose brain function than nonsmokers. Fiocco says smoking increases oxidative stress in the brain, hindering cognitive function. Another study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, showed similar results: Middle-aged smokers had a faster decline in verbal memory than nonsmokers.

Study participants who worked, volunteered, or lived with another person had a 24 percent better chance of high cognitive abilities than those who didn’t. Social interaction requires memory and attention, which help in other cognitive tasks. “If you isolate yourself and are passively engaged in your environment—such as watching TV—you’re not putting your brain to work,” says Fiocco.