As Baby Boomers enter their 50s, 60s, and (for the “leading edge” of that generation, 70s), they are being increasingly studied in an effort to understand how to prolong their health. Until quite recently, “health” was primarily defined as physical: ambulatory, respiratory, circulatory, Immunological, etc. But the explosive growth of Alzheimer’s and dementia has placed increasing emphasis on cognitive functioning. And interestingly a number of recent studies have conclusively demonstrated that exercise not only aids in maintaining physical health, but also helps people preserve their cognitive abilities. It is those abilities that can help older workers remain competitive in a workplace that increasingly emphasizes problem solving and creative thinking.

“Overall, longitudinal studies show that people who exercise – whether young, middle-aged, or older – score higher on cognitive tests than those who don’t. Why would exercise make you smarter? Scientists are still figuring it out, but they have some clues. They do know that exercise creates new brain cells in the precise spot that handles new memories; it’s called ‘neurogenesis.’ Ordinarily, cells in this area simply die off. Scientists have also found that exercise greases the rails of white matter as it sends signals to various parts of the brain. It is like moving from a dial-up Internet to broadband.”*

Somewhat counter intuitively, exercise, rather than mental workouts (more on that in a moment) appears to offer the greatest return on time investment. That is not to say, though, that intellectual “exercise” isn’t valuable. It is. But it needs to stretch your mental capacity, not merely engage it. You are indeed using your brain when you read the Washington Post or this blog, but you’re not really challenging it. And it’s challenge that helps maintain and build cognitive abilities.

What are the best kinds of challenges? Learning a new language probably tops the list. Learning how to play a musical instrument is another excellent choice. And of course solving puzzles – whether crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Words with Friends, or Candy Crush – is great mental exercise.

Finally, sustained, deliberate practice of the chosen activity (whether physical OR mental) appears to be a key ingredient in improving cognitive abilities. “For four decades, K. Anders Erickson has studied internationally ranked chess players, world-class athletes, musicians, writers, scientists, foreign language interpreters, and even typists, to see why some rose to the top while others remained good but unremarkable. His theory has been incorrectly abbreviated to suggest that genius springs not from genes or innate abilities but from practicing ten thousand hours or ten years.”* He would not, in fact, deny that factors such as family support, discipline, a skilled teacher, and starting to “train” early are important. But most important of all, he found, was focusing on weaknesses until they are mastered. “Doing something novel and complex is going to take some time, it’s going to be painful, it’s going to hurt, you’re going to cry. But as we clear out that brush, we develop new neuron connections…speeding up the amount of time it takes (for neural circuitry) to fire and receive.”*

Speeding up as you age rather than slowing down – now that is a sure fire way to prolong success in your chosen career, or in launching a new one!

*Excerpted from “Life Reimagined…the Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife” by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, published 2016.