Seniors & Aging

Activity, social interaction key to maintaining mental sharpness

Dr. Henry Levine says senior citizens should treat their brain as though it's a muscle.

When it comes to maintaining those mental muscles as you age, it's "use it or lose it!" says Levine, a psychiatrist who has practiced for more than three decades in Bellingham.

"It's vital for people to stay engaged in stimulating mental activities," says Levine, whose work with seniors makes up about 30 per-cent of his practice. "The activities you choose aren't as important as continually choosing something, anything, to keep your mind engaged."After working with seniors for 15 years, Mary Gould, administrator of The Courtyard Dementia Care Community, agrees.

"I believe whole-heartedly in 'use it or lose it,'" says Gould, who teaches a training class in dementia and mental health for primary caregivers under the auspices of the Department of Social and Health Services.

"One aspect I feel is crucial in mental stimulation is the use of the hands as well as the brain," she says. "It's procedural learning, and it really works wonders. Anything that involves active, repetitive movement can be helpful."

Evelyn Yarbrough, 87, of Birch Bay, goes out of her way to exercise her brain every day.

"I make sure to do both the Sudoku and crossword puzzle every morning," she says. "That exercises my mind with both math and words."

Sheryl Sparks, a vice president of Highgate Senior Living in Bellingham, says it's never too late for seniors not only to retain mental acuity, but to grow brain cells at any age.

"Seniors who stay engaged socially will decline mentally 50 percent slower than a person who stays isolated," she says.


Besides boosting brain power, seniors should also keep their bodies active.

"As far as exercise goes," says Patricia White, Highgate's community manager, "it's not just about the activity, but the social engage-ment, too. Seniors who don't exercise become lethargic and not as quick."

"A 20-year study indicated how physical exercise really does build brain cells," Sparks says. "The study showed that people who walked (at least) 45 minutes three times a week increased mental acuity by 20 percent. And it's never too late to start exercising."

"I urge seniors not to forget how valuable walking is," says Bellingham occupational therapist Laura Hale. "Statistical research shows that seniors who walk three to five times a week from a half-hour to an hour definitely slow the (Alzheimer's) disease process."

Levine stresses that a person's degree of physical fitness "correlates highly with the retention of mental acuity as we grow older."

"Retaining mental sharpness also involves what I call a 'muscular' approach to good exercise and a good diet," he says. "Seniors really need to make sure their doctor stays on top of this situation."

Experts know it can be hard to stay motivated to exercise. Sparks points out how stress has been documented as a cause for losing mental capacity. For example, she says it's vital for a senior who loses a spouse to stay engaged.

"The worst possible thing you can do is shut your brain off (for any length of time)," Sparks says. "Even when you're tired when you come home, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to go for a walk, rather than put your feet up on the couch. You really will feel better mentally."

Levine cautions well-meaning seniors to be wary of advertising for dietary and herbal preparations that are marketed as panaceas for aging.

"People on fixed incomes sometimes spend a lot of money on things that are really not worth much," he says. "Keeping cholesterol and blood pressure under control is far more important than any nutritional supplements or herbal supplements anyone can buy."


Levine feels our society has much to learn from Chinese culture. "The Chinese value older people for their age and wisdom. In our society, we could learn from this."

"I think a lot of people see seniors as throwaway people," White says, "but seniors really do have so much to share, and so much to give."

Sylvia Thorpe, a clinical psychologist who has worked in Bellingham for 26 years, urges seniors, not to mention people of all ages, to avoid vegetating in front of a television.

"Make sure you do active things, such as Sudoku or crosswords," Thorpe says. "And reading is so important. It's helpful (to retain mental acuity) to read at least 30 minutes a day.

"The whole point is to act on something, rather than remain passive," she says. "If you don't like to read, go out and make something. If you're out working in the shop, that's just fine."


Sparks suggests that seniors can build new neuro pathways by learning new skills.

"Anything that's complicated and makes your brain hurt is good for you," she says, suggesting learning a musical instrument or a for-eign language as examples.

"That's so important, to always try to be learning something new," Thorpe says. "The harder the activity, the more you're stimulating and invigorating the brain."

She recommends that seniors develop a hobby if they don't have one to take into retirement.

"It's also important to cultivate good friends, and to do it early," Thorpe says. "A lot of people are too busy to have many friends, but they really should make the time. Having a friend can do a lot to ease mental stress and strain."

Josselyn Winslow, executive director of the Bellingham-based Alzheimer's Society of Washington, and Hale, an occupational therapist for 25 years, coordinate a program called "Staying Connected." The free program, held on Wednesdays and conducted at the Health Support Center in Bellingham, is designed to help seniors with early signs of memory loss to battle the problem, Winslow says.

"Initiation and motivation are key components of fighting the disease," says Hale, "so reaching out and doing activities that are diffi-cult or novel are very important for seniors who show signs of early memory loss."

"For example, it's good to see if you can do something with your left hand that you normally do with your right hand, just to cause your brain to respond in a different way," Hale says.


Winslow and Hale says socializing is key to retaining mental acuity or fending off early memory loss.

"Getting up and going out staves off depression, and staves off the changes that go neurologically with depression," Hale says. "De-pression and Alzheimer's often co-exist in the same person. You really need to prepare yourself to create a social connection that will continue to 'pull you out' as you age."

Susan Evans, Highgate's community relations coordinator, says that contrary to stereotypes, many seniors embrace technology — es-pecially e-mail and e-mail photography — as improved ways of staying engaged.

"Seniors have sure figured that out," Evans says. "We've seen such a big change in how they use technology. And it's instant response, which is instant mental stimulation."

Winslow points out that medical research shows the value of forming those kinds of connections and making friends.

"One of the medical experts with whom we work recommends that everyone should have (at least) five friends," she says. "If you can get out and establish five friends you can take any problem to, or that you can help with their lives, you have built a wonderful support network, particularly if you have lose a spouse.

"Meeting with humans is the best brain exercise there is," Hale says. "This incorporates all areas of brain activity."


"It's very important to figure out a way to start developing friendships," Winslow says. "Volunteering is a great way to get out, go places and do things."

Levine says volunteer work "can be huge" while keeping seniors engaged. "Volunteer work fits into both socialization and keeping the mind engaged," he says, "and it helps increase self-worth."

Thorpe says volunteer work is a good way to handle depression.

"To me, one of the best ways to handle depression is to go help someone who's in worse shape than you are," says Thorpe. "And re-member that pets can be very important. People who have pets generally live longer."

Gould recommends volunteering. "Volunteer work can be really big for any senior," she says. "I have a 93-year-old friend who volun-teers at the Bellingham Senior Center. This gives her an intrinsic feeling of self-worth."

'Helps me start thinking'

Gould points out that depression can seriously affect mental acuity, so it's important to seek treatment if needed.

"If you're depressed, it affects your mental ability to learn and stay sharp," Gould says. "Depression interferes with how people proc-ess memories."

Winslow encourages the people in her group to learn new skills or reinforce well-loved old skills, such as those involving music, art or bicycling.

Lynden resident Ralph Bennett, 78, who is retired from a career in teaching and sales, says he uses his love for work in his shop to keep himself mentally sharp.

He built a colorful roulette wheel for games and created other woodwork for the Health Support Center, along with manufacturing more than 1,000 wooden cards for children, many for a program in Mexico. "Woodworking always helps me start thinking. Without the fun of doing that, I think I'd go crazy."

Winslow says one of the women in "Staying Connected" sharpens her mind by sewing aprons — more than 100 so far — and some-times selling them. She also glues puzzles together and turns them into artwork, plus plays keyboard for more mental exercise.

"She says all this activity makes her feel good," Winslow says.