Ask Mr. Pedometer and Friends……                                                                           

Original Publish Date: Jan 11, 2017

 Q:  Mr. Pedometer, you always encourage us to exercise our bodies, but how about our minds?  Any tips on how to stay mentally fit?

A:  I recently read an article entitled “How to Become a ‘Superager,'” by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University.  She asks, “Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline?  ‘Superagers‘  (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. My colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick.”

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Barrett and her colleagues scanned and compared the brains of 17 “superagers” with those of other people of similar age.  They found that there were areas of the brain that were thinner for most people “as a result of age-related atrophy,” than those of superagers, which appeared more like young adults’ brain scans.

“The thicker these regions of cortex are, the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention, such as memorizing a list of nouns and recalling it 20 minutes later,” notes Barrett.

What surprised me about their findings was their conclusion that the way to become a superager is to “work hard at something.”  That can be either physical or mental activity or a combination of both, but the scientists in the study found that to do this might make you feel bad at the time.

“Superagers excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort,” reports Barrett.  “Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.” She says, “This means that pleasant puzzles like Sudoku are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Neither are the popular diversions of various ‘brain game’ websites. You must expend enough effort that you feel some ‘yuck.’ Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.”

This may be contrary to what most of us tend to select.  “In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it” says Barrett bluntly.

“So, make a New Year’s resolution to take up a challenging activity. Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Work that brain. Make it a year to remember.”

And make sure you are able to remember it!  What “hard work” will you attempt in 2017?