Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The Senior Side: maintaining an active, healthy brain

By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published July 12, 2019

When I was younger I had a remarkable memory. I could run into someone I had not seen for years and come up with the name in a flash. I assumed that this capability would stay with me the rest of my life. Wrong. Sometime after age 50 or there about, seniors begin to lose a little memory function. We commonly refer to these lapses as “senior moments.”

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

One of the most important requirements as we age is to do whatever we can to reduce risk of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2019 an estimated 5.8 million Americans of all ages are living with some form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. By 2050 it will rise to nearly 14 million. The incidence of dementia increases with age: 3% of seniors age 65-74, 17% of age 75-84 and 32% of age 85 and older have some form of dementia. One in three seniors will die from Alzheimer’s, more than breast and prostate cancers combined.

Dementia is an illness characterized by a deterioration of the cognitive function beyond what might be expected from normal aging. According to new guidelines issued by the World Health Organization, people can reduce their risk of dementia by doing the same things that prevent heart disease: regular exercise, weight control, healthy diet, moderation and maintaining an active lifestyle.

All seniors need to ask the question, “What am I doing to maintain and enhance an active and healthy body and mind?”

Use it or lose it

During career years, brains are extremely active as a result of job requirements and busy lifestyles. In later years, we tend to cut back dramatically on activities that cause the brain to function at higher levels. If you don’t continue to challenge your brain, you will lose some of your mental capability. Like the old saying goes, “Use it or lose it.”

All seniors need to find activities that exercise the brain to maintain optimum performance level. Below are some options to maintain and enhance mental conditioning:

Lifelong learning—“go back to school” to take courses of interest. Just Google “Lifelong Learning Atlanta” for possible options. One local program, Seniors Enriched Living (SEL) is a non-profit, interfaith organization started at St. Thomas Aquinas Church that has been providing senior adult continuing education since 1990. In Georgia, residents age 62 and older can sign up for free courses at any of 31 state colleges and universities. One of the advantages of enrolling in free courses is that there is no pressure to get a “grade.” Your purpose is to learn something new to maintain an active brain.

Reading—the act of reading is a tremendously rewarding mental exercise. It is a source of enjoyment, learning and mental expansion. And the best part is that reading is really inexpensive, particularly if you regularly use your local public library.

Writing—another wonderful outlet is writing. You can try your hand at writing poems, short stories, novels or something as simple as compiling your life history or writing to your children, grandkids or friends.

Card and table games—yes, there is an important place for mentally-stimulating games like bridge, chess, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Stratego, Backgammon, etc.

Crossword puzzles—one of my favorite hobbies is working a good crossword puzzle. I think seniors have an advantage at crosswords because we have many more things stored in our memory banks than younger people.

Music—another terrific mental exercise is playing musical instruments. Many seniors have some music experience or instrument skills from their childhood that may have been ignored for many decades. Find that old trumpet and toot away!

Painting and art—one of the great artistic hobbies is painting or sculpting. The fascination with artwork is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Learning how to paint or sculpt or create art provides a wonderful mental exercise.

Language—learn a new language. Surprise your Hispanic friends in your parish by greeting them with, “Hola, como estas?” (“Hello, how are you?”) Check out language apps.

Since all seniors have different tastes and skills and experiences, it is not possible to create one standard brain maintenance program for everyone, but rest assured there is an activity, hobby or interest you can use to maintain and stimulate your brain.

If you engage in one or more of these activities, you will maintain an active and healthy brain. If you are spending too much time on the couch or in front of the TV, get going and exercise your body and brain.

Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send your thoughts to Bill, email