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Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychology professor at Columbia University in New York, followed 1,800 adults for seven years and found that the more social outings and hobbies they pursued -- such as playing cards, attending lectures, or gardening -- the lower their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, one of the most devastating forms of cognitive decline. "All of these things provide a certain amount of stimulation to the brain, which strengthens mechanisms and helps with problem-solving," he says. Use the following suggestions for staying mentally fit.
You don't have to go from introvert to extrovert overnight. "Just joining a social group is a step forward," says Denise Park, the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Chair in Brain Science at the University of Texas, Dallas. Find a cooking club or a book club -- or better yet, organize one. Choose books outside your intellectual comfort zone.
Universities across the country offer noncredit classes for people over the age of 50 through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Students can learn to paint, play an instrument, create a documentary, and speak Italian, to name just a few of the inexpensively priced course offerings. To find a course near you, go to OsherFoundation.org and click on "The Programs." Then follow the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes link to see a list of universities and colleges that participate. Contact the schools directly for more information on what types of classes and courses they offer through the Osher Institute.
Travel whenever you can, whether it's as simple as a day trip to a nearby town's museum or festival, or as challenging as a visit to a foreign country where you don't speak the language. "Travel can be intellectually and socially stimulating," says Park, "especially when a new language is involved."
If you're like most people, you often get "volunteered" for lots of things but the real benefits come when you take on a noble pursuit of your own choosing. Determine your local library's new book needs and plan the fun-raiser. Find a way to make that community playground a reality. Bite off a big legacy-leaving project at least once in your life.
As goes the heart, so does the brain. If your cardiovascular system is unhealthy, your brain will be too. This can't be emphasized enough: Studies repeatedly show that regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for mental health. One University of Illinois study showed that walking 45 minutes three times a week for six weeks significantly improved the mental ability of older adults with no dementia. After six months, the walkers' brains even grew bigger in size, appearing more like the brain of someone two to three years younger. Walk, take a dance class, hit the pool, do whatever moves you to move.
You won't become a genius from the foods you eat, but that doesn't mean some choices aren't smarter than others. Go for lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, healthful oils (such as olive oil), and lean sources of protein to keep your heart, and your head, healthy.
Chronic stress is the archenemy of a healthy brain. It can impair memory and attention and even kill off neurons over the long haul. Find a source of stress alleviation that works for you.