David Merrill, an adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., suggests we use the word “pursuit” instead of “hobby,” as it elevates the concept of an activity to something demanding, something requiring concentration or collaboration. Something we ought to chase down.
Activities that demand focus and industry are the whetstone to keeping cognition sharp, Merrill says. Our brains, he continues, are like any other part of our body. “‘Use it or lose it’ is not just a hypothesis, it’s a basic biologic fact that holds as true for our brains as our muscles or our bones.”
While there is as yet no surefire way to prevent dementia or cure it, the Lancet in 2020 identified 12 potentially modifiable risk factors for the condition; they include physiological (blood pressure, diabetes, hearing loss), lifestyle choices (smoking, drinking, physical inactivity), environmental (air pollution) depression, social isolation and a lower level of education. The Alzheimer Society of Canada is also clear about what we can do to help minimize our dementia risk: keep cognitively engaged, learn new things, meet new people, keep a diary, remain curious and engage in conversations.
While the loss of muscle is a visual thing — taut thighs grow flaccid, flat stomachs soft — and the health of our skeleton can be measured using bone density scans, Merrill says, “it is only recently that we were aware the same reality was evident in our brains.” Disuse atrophy applies to sedentary muscles in the same way it does the cognitive decline seen in dementia.
Brain imaging illustrates this point: Learning and engagement contribute toward building not just psychologic lift but also physiologic lift in the preservation of brain volumes and preventing that atrophy — or shrinking — of memory centers, in much the same way physical exercise keeps our visible muscle in well-defined shape, Merrill adds.
The Alzheimer’s Association says we need to “stump” ourselves by challenging our brains, by doing something we find hard. Think of it as cognitive weightlifting, a task that requires mental flexing and strength. And that often means doing something we aren’t used to doing: something new.
We do this naturally in our youth, but when we hit midlife, we are inclined to slow down and be less social, less active, less inclined to stretch ourselves mentally.
In her book “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live,” Becca Levy, a professor of psychology and epidemiology at Yale University, argues that individuals — and society — speed up aging by reinforcing stereotypes about “senior moments.” First among these images: “the false age stereotype that older l have trouble learning new information.”
She writes, “The fact is that there are many positive cognitive changes in older age and there are many techniques to support lifelong learning. Older persons can benefit from the same memory strategies that young persons use to improve recall. In fact, our brains experience new growth of neurons in response to challenges throughout the lifespan.”
The problem is that thinking you’re old — or accepting the ageism that society trusts upon you — becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so you’re less likely to try new things. Then you are not only failing to exercise your brain but also developing a habit of giving up.
According to Gallup, the average age of retirement in the United States is 61 in 2022. The Pew Research Center reports that just over half of Americans over 55 had retired by the third quarter of 2021 — a statistic exacerbated by the pandemic and one that will rise as a generation of boomers hurtle toward pension age. The average life expectancy is 76.1 years.
But while getting older is — one hopes — a given, dementia is not, says Monica Moreno, senior director of care and support at the Alzheimer’s Association.
Research indicates that mentally challenging activities can have both short- and long-term benefits for the brain, she says. And a hobby — something new that we introduce to our lives as the demands of employment recede — is an excellent way to challenge oneself and possibly set off a cascade of positive changes.
“Imagine on retirement you decide to take up dancing lessons,” Moreno says. Ultimately, “you’re not just benefiting from the cognitive challenge — learning new steps — you’re also likely more socially engaged and more active. And because you’re more active, you may think about your diet, so before you know it, you’ve embraced a number of important lifestyle changes.”
She directs me to the Alzheimer’s Association education program, “Healthy Living for Your Brain and Body: Tips From the Latest Research.”
Sylvain Moreno, an associate professor at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (no relation to Monica Moreno), agrees that remaining mentally agile is important, so important that it might carry more weight in protecting you from dementia than your genetics or your current cognitive skills.
What about learning something in retirement? “You’re never too old to improve cognitive function,” he says.
And when thinking about retirement, think about staying engaged as you age, too. “Having a plan is critically important,” Monica Moreno says. Ask yourself: “How am I going to keep busy, stay engaged, remain active?”
Taking up a new hobby is an excellent first step.
“Based on a large scientific literature, our general sentiment is that it is never too early or too late to engage in physically and mentally stimulating activities,” says Judy Pa, co-director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study at the University of California at San Diego.
“We think of these healthy activities as a savings account for the brain,” Pa says. “Begin building that cognitive reserve now, so the money is in the bank for down the road if our brains need it.”