Even though all work and no play may make Jack a dull boy – or Jill a dull girl – that old proverb doesn’t tell the whole story.
Yes, taking time for a personal life and some fun will certainly enhance your well-being, and, as it turns out, help keep your brain sharp. Anyway, life would be boring without play, even if you’re 100 years old.
But a low level of stimulating work will make Jack and Jill dull, too. Jobs requiring tasks that challenge the brain may help preserve thinking skills and memory.
A study of more than 1,000 people compared their IQ scores around age 11 with their memory and reasoning scores around age 70. The researchers found that those who had mentally stimulating jobs seemed to retain sharper thinking, even long after retirement. The study was published in the journal Neurology.
Since the researchers organized people’s jobs by level of complexity, they could tell that people who had “highly complex” jobs – such as architects, lawyers, surgeons, and musicians – did better on the reasoning test. Conversely, those with less complicated jobs – carpet layers, painters and telephone operators – had lower scores.
You need to know, though, that the overall effect of occupation on later-life skills was only about 1 to 2 percent better for those smarty-pants professionals. It is, however, comparable with smoking when considering how lifestyle can either protect against or promote brain aging.
Of course, this begs the question of what you can do now, at 30, 40, or 50, to alter the course of your ability to stay sharp into old age. If you have a job that requires complex skills, it just means that you’re lucky; it’s built into your lifestyle.
There are other ways, however, to stimulate your brain, whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a trash hauler.
When it comes to the brain, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Because the human brain has an incredible ability to change and adapt, which is known as neuroplasticity, the right stimulation can train your brain to form new neural pathways.
Everyone loses their keys, forgets to take out the trash, and can’t find their car in a parking lot, now and then. But for a deeper sense of memory and sharpness, your brain needs a workout. Tips from the Harvard Health Letter include:
Literally, working out. Physical exercise increases oxygen to your brain and reduces your risk for illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, that lead to memory loss. Exercise may also supercharge brain chemicals and protect the brain’s cells.
Making and keeping good friends throughout life. This, like exercise, takes work. Meaningful relationships and a network of support are critical to brain health. But, if you don’t give, you can’t take.
Laughter. You might think this is funny, which is good. Laughter gives many regions across the brain a good workout. So if you’re a grump, snap out of it. There has to be something in your life to laugh about, even if it’s yourself. Self-effacement can go a long way. Laughter is laughter.
Reducing stress. In this fast-paced, technologically fueled world of today, it’s easier than ever to stress out. Maybe you’ll chill if you know that stress kills brain cells and harms the hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms new memories and stores old ones. Health, mental and physical, may not actually be everything, but there’s a lot you can’t do without it, so take a break from stressors in your life.
Eating a diet that’s good for your brain. That includes omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and cruciferous vegetables.
You give your body a workout; you should give your brain a workout. Learn challenging new skills, like playing a musical instrument, or a hobby that requires hand-eye coordination. Or travel, which takes forethought, planning, and adaptation.
Adequate sleep. When you're sleep deprived, your brain can't operate at full capacity. Creativity, problem-solving abilities, and critical thinking skills are compromised. Whether you're studying, working, or trying to juggle life's many demands, sleep deprivation is a recipe for disaster.
Some other tips:
Don’t smoke, and limit drinking. Both can increase risk of dementia.
There you have it. Essentially, except for those genetic factors you can’t control, it comes down to another proverb supported by the study: use it or lose it.
March 04, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN