A senior moment: Focus on staying sharp

By Danna Downing

Recently a friend shared with me her concern after her parents told her not to worry about them because they had an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) membership. AARP is a respected organization available to help us as we age, but it is up to us to seek knowledge, make plans and identify needed helpers and resources to truly age well. The goal of this column is to share a personal learning experience in hopes that it may in some way inspire you to take action in Act III of your life.

As a health educator and a wellness coach during my working years, I learned to appreciate the power of doing periodic assessments to keep myself and my clients focused on maintaining or improving our health. During my career, I maintained a keen interest in two research areas that impacted my work as a wellness coach. First, I was fascinated by the science supporting motivational interviewing, a practice that allows a coach to more appropriately partner with a participant to set goals and achieve health behavior change. Also, as I grew older, and the field of neuroscience developed, I wanted to learn more about aging and the brain.

Now, in retirement, these interests are more personal and present in my life. That is why I jumped at the opportunity to complete the AARP Brain Health Assessment offered to me free of charge when I contracted for the AARP United Health Care supplemental insurance program. This assessment is also available to the AARP general membership.

Because a healthy lifestyle correlates with good brain health, it is the foundation for keeping your brain sharp. Just an hour of exercise three times a week can improve heart health and brain health. A recent small study done at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas showed that three months of exercise can facilitate neuroplasticity and reduce both the biological and cognitive consequences of aging, especially for sedentary adults. This translates into better brain blood flow and cognition due to increased cerebral blood volume to the hippocampus of the brain. Measurements of cognitive functions included tests of executive function, memory, and complex attention span. MRI scans were also used. The post-cognitive test scores showed significant improvement for the exercising group in the areas of memory function and text memory recall.

Any assessment is simply a snapshot in time, and like housework, a healthy lifestyle requires consistent attention and commitment. Because I had scored lower than expected for my age and overall health in three areas, I chose to dig deeper and look at the research, resources, challenges, videos, games, and activities offered on the AARP website. If possible, I wanted to improve my working memory, recall memory, and sustained attention. I chose STAYING SHARP as my first module; it included short videos with a neuroscientist, games, research articles and opportunities to add “homework” to my brain health improvement plan. FOCUS is the single most important gateway to increasing our perception, memory skills, reasoning, and problem-solving skills which leads to better decisions and less stress. For all of us, this requires putting plans in place to focus better and find our energy flow. Two new behaviors I have since adopted include planning a task switch activity for when I am weary of working on my top priority.

I have found when I come back from the new task, I once again have the energy needed to do a task well. Secondly, when I find intrusive thoughts interfering with my focused time, I jot them down on little cards and then put them out of sight. It is amazing how it clears the mind and saves the thought for a better time. For the next three months I will learn about and incorporate more brain health skills and then test myself again. I hope that by improving my focus, I will strengthen those brain muscles too.

AARP is one of the best resources available to older adults, in my opinion, but there are many others out there. I use AARP’s information as a benchmark for quality and a launching pad for learning more. You will also want to discuss your efforts with your healthcare provider.

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