Maintaining Healthy Minds and Bodies
Our minds and bodies are at their best when involved in action and activity, yet most people find themselves sitting at desks, repeating the same routines day after day. Our bodies are much better suited to the physical demands of hunter –gatherer societies, or even the agrarian economies of a century or two ago. Plowing the south forty behind an ox might not be the most attractive of occupations, but it does wonders for the heart and lungs. We live in an amazing era in which financial security usually requires hours of sedentary activity, but in order to maintain physical health we are obliged to spend more hours at the gym.
The same thing holds true for our minds. It seems that formal education and constant academic learning is correlated with improved mental functioning at older ages. (Ratey, 2001, p. 43) We are learning, growing creatures, and mental challenges are necessary to keep our brains healthy, yet most occupations do not require constant learning. The widespread use of television, video games and internet use tends to pacify our need for mental challenges, rather than satisfying it.
Healthy mental and physical aging seems to be a product of lifestyles that incorporate mental and physical challenges and activity. It seems that what we usually think of as signs of physical aging are controllable to a large degree. Things like physical strength; muscle mass, cholesterol levels, bone density and body fat are all subject to lifestyle habits, particularly exercise (Chopra 1993). It does not seem to take much exercise to gain real benefits, either. According to Stephen Blair at the Institute for Aerobic Research mortality rates for people who simply walked for half an hour a day about he same as those who ran thirty or forty miles per week (Chopra 1993).
The same thing seems to be true for maintaining mental abilities. Cohen (2001) tells us that poets aged 65 and over are over-represented in collections of award winning poetry, and professional mathematicians tend to remain creative far into old age. Ongoing study of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minnesota has shown that intellectual challenges in old age stimulates the growth of dendrites in the brain, increasing neuron connections, countering the effects of aging, adding in recovery from strokes, and resisting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. (Ratey 2001)
It seems that countering the conditions of aging is straightforward – take a walk, read a book, stay involved. Actually integrating those habits, as simple as they are, is more challenging. Reading a book is easy, but finding the time for it is hard. How do we incorporate an hour a day into simply walking?
These things can be done, but there is a cost.
Like so many other people, I own a TV. Unlike most others, however, I keep mine in a box at the back of a closet. Simply forgoing TV gives me an incredible amount of time for more productive activities, and I find that I do not miss the TV trash that passes for culture at all. This comes at the cost of being out of touch with popular culture, however. I do not have much to say when the people around me talk about the latest Survivor controversy, or how mean Simon is to one of Paula’s favorites. In fact I probably would not be able to recognize Simon if I saw him.
On the other hand, I am reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and can talk at length about the Federalist/Republican controversy of 1801. It is hard to slip that sort of thing into conversation, but it is more interesting and rewarding than discussing the extent of Paula’s intoxication on last week’s show. And I know my brain is the better for it.
Chopra, D. (1993). Ageless Body Timeless Mind. New York, NY: Random House
Cohen, G. (2001). The Creative Age. New York, NY: Harper Collins
Ratey, J. (2001). A Users Guide to the Brain. New York, NY: Random House