Bottom Line
Your Health
Staying sharp
If you feel like you're losing your mental edge, all is not lost

By Jill Sederstrom
Special to Land Line

Think fast – what’s six times seven? How about the capital of Florida?

Chances are, you’ve known the answers to these questions since you were a kid. But depending on a number of factors, it may have taken you a few extra seconds to think of the correct answers just now.

As people get older, it takes longer to process information, and reaction time slows. It’s part of the natural process of aging – but the effects can be augmented when people are fatigued.
“Age and fatigue together are a tough combination for people in occupations where they have to stay alert and make good decisions,” said Dr. Jeffrey W. Elias, health science administrator for The National Institute on Aging, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Elias told Land Line that fatigue and age can also cut down on the brain’s executive functioning, which is the brain’s ability to make a plan and carry it out, or make basic, immediate judgments.
As you age, Elias said, the brain’s executive functioning can become somewhat compromised, especially at night or when you’re tired.

“You make mistakes. You take chances,” Elias said.

So, what can people do to keep their mind sharp as they age?

Work your body and your mind
Although it may seem unrelated, one of the most important factors in maintaining brain function is physical exercise.

Physical exercise has not only been shown to improve the health of the neurons in the brain, it also helps you sleep better and regulates metabolism. Exercise can also keep you more alert and improve reaction time.

“Physical fitness is also going to lead to mental fitness,” Elias said.

He suggested that fitness centers in truck stops would help give long-haul truck drivers more opportunities to exercise. But you don’t have to have access to a fitness center to stay fit.

Robert Kahn, co-author of the book “Successful Aging” and a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, said even a brisk walk can help keep the mind active.

Give it a rest – and a challenge
Getting good sleep or napping when you’re feeling tired can also help alleviate the effects of aging and fatigue. And just as you can exercise your body, you can exercise your mind as well.
“The brain can be exercised directly, mental exercises,” Kahn said, “and that can be reading, it can be games.”

Kahn suggested crossword puzzles or other critical-thinking games, although Elias said studies have shown those types of activities may only improve your skills in that one area.

He said studies have shown that improving a person’s visual speed of processing can also improve a person’s useful field of view – the ability to interpret a lot of visual information and cues at the same time – as they get older.

As people age, their field of view weakens, causing them not to be able to interpret as much information, which can be particularly problematic for truckers while driving.

He said playing video games that have a lot of visual cues may help improve a person’s field of view, although he recommended playing the games in moderation.


Food for thought
When you’re feeling fatigued, Kahn said it’s also important to avoid “comfort foods” and carbohydrates, and stick to foods that are metabolized more slowly, such as nuts.


Thinking, long term
And remember – just because you’re aging doesn’t mean you can’t increase your brain power.
“Even the adult brain can and does grow replacement neurons,” Kahn said. “While that rate of growth diminishes with age, it doesn’t stop until we stop.”

Four factors that determine how you age mentally:

  • Genetics
  • Education
    • Those with more schooling and more training tend to mentally age better.
  • Physical exercise
    • Aerobic exercise is particularly important in keeping your mind sharp.
  • Mental exercise
    • Exercising your mind by reading or playing a game is also critical to healthy mind.
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