As they get older, many people worry about the condition of their brain. They fear their brain will no longer be as sharp as it once was. The thought of losing the cognitive ability they had in their youth feels like losing themselves.
You may have noticed, though, that it does not happen to everyone.
Many seniors remain sharp and attentive even into their eighties and nineties. But what makes them so lucky? How can we ensure that we, too, maintain mental clarity into old age?
Some say that it is genetics, that some people are just born that way. Yes, there might be a genetic component, however, there is much we can do to combat the effects of time on the brain.
Unlike the other organs of the body, the brain has the ability to change itself, to continually rewire and grow its neuronal connections, an ability called “neuroplasticity.”1 By taking advantage of and nurturing this ability, we can give our brain the gift of longevity. Here are some tips for that, along with some exercises to help you:
1. Learn Something New
Too often, learning is thought to exist for the younger population or for obtaining a particular job. However, lifelong learning is one of the best ways to ensure brain health into old age.2 In this sense, the brain is a lot like a muscle. If you lay in bed or sit around all day, your muscles become weak. It is exactly the same way for the brain—you have to “use it or lose it,” as the saying goes.
And, just like exercise, you have to really challenge your brain to keep it in top shape. Studies have shown that the brain retains its ability to grow new connections even in old age,3 so take full advantage of that ability. Consider taking on the challenge of something you always wanted to try but thought you wouldn’t be good at doing. Or, try something that seems opposite of the education you already have. For example, if you are a math whiz, try taking a literature class or an art workshop.
Try This Exercise: Learning can also come in the form of brain games, which studies have shown can combat brain decline. Try this exercise called “Brain Circuit Drawing,” which builds hand-eye coordination and balance the hemispheres of the brain. Grab a sheet of paper and a pencil and practice drawing the patterns below until the motion is smooth and the drawing is symmetrical.
Follow link to print full size: Brain Circuit Drawing
Image source: Submitted by author
2. Find Purpose for Your Life
Especially after they retire, people often lose their sense of purpose in life. This has shown to be detrimental to brain health and a major cause of cognitive decline in older.4 Basically, when people feel useful, they are happier, less stressed, and more resilient throughout their lives.
In my book I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years, I tell people to assume that they will live to 120, not because it is guaranteed that they will live this long, but because it is the best mindset to have for a long, purposeful life. And, since the oldest people in the world are all near that age, it’s not impossible. With this mindset, you are still in the prime of life at sixty, seventy, or even eighty. Age, then, does not need to limit us in choosing a grand vision for our lives, one that makes our heart soar and leaves us feeling we’ve contributed to the world.
Try This Exercise: Ask yourself, “What is most important to me in life?” Brainstorm a list. What do you hold most dear? Integrity, love, abundance? Write down 10 things that come to mind, whatever they may be. For each item, ask yourself, “Would living this value make me feel really happy and fulfilled?” Then, choose the five things you think are the most important to you. Write down ways you can bring more of them into your life.
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3. Meditate Regularly
Stress is one of the greatest enemies of brain health and is associated with a greater risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.5 And, as you may already know, it is associated with many other forms of health illness, including digestive issues, heart disease, and immune problems. So, doing something to help control it is probably the best thing you can do for your health overall, both body and mind.
Meditation has been found to be especially excellent for reducing stress and for improving cognition. A study at UCLA found that older people who meditate regularly have much more youthful brains than the general population.6 And, it improves one’s ability to focus, which many people struggle with in their later years, and one’s sense of well-being.7
Try This Exercise: Meditation can be as simple as breathing deeply and mindfully, as in the “Abdominal Breathing” exercise I often teach to help people focus and relax. Here is how it basically works:
- Sit on the floor or in a chair in a comfortable position and straighten your lower back. You can also lie on your back on a flat surface. Relax your neck, shoulders, and arms and close your eyes.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your lower abdomen.
- When you breathe in, let your abdomen expand like a balloon filling with air. When you exhale, let your abdomen contract. The hand on your chest should remain relatively still.
- For beginners, it’s good to start with focusing on the feeling of slowly pulling the abdomen in and out without worrying about the length of each breath.
- Relax any tension in your body and mind, and breathe comfortably. You don’t need to intentionally breathe slowly or hold your breath. Once your body is sufficiently relaxed, your breathing will automatically slow and stabilize.
- As you continue doing abdominal breathing, you’ll develop heat in your belly. Focus your mind on that heat, and it will gradually grow stronger, spreading to your entire abdomen and lower back. Your belly will also feel full of energy.
Taking care of your brain is the core of taking care of yourself. After all, you can’t be who you are without it. Hopefully, the above exercises will help you take better care of it so that you can live a happy, healthy, and productive life for 100 years or more.
 What is Brain Plasticity? brain IQ. https://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/brain-plasticity/what-is-brain-plasticity/
 Penny Dacks, Ph.D. Cognitive Enrichment: Lifelong Learning May Help Prevent Dementia, Cognitive Vitality, Jun 2014 https://www.alzdiscovery.org/cognitive-vitality/blog/cognitive-enrichment
 Emily Underwood. New neurons for life? Science Magazine, AAAS, Mar 2019
 Alan Mozes. A Sense of Purpose May Benefit Your Brain, COMPASS, by WebMD, Mar 2015 https://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/news/20150319/a-sense-of-purpose-may-benefit-your-brain#1
 Protect your brain from stress, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, Feb 2021.
 Eileen Luders, Nicolas Cherbuin and Florian Kurth. Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy, Frontiers in Psychology, Front. Psychol., 21 January 2015 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551/full
 Matthew A. Killingsworth, Daniel T. Gilbert. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, AAAS, Science Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6006, pp. 932. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/330/6006/932.abstract
Financial Disclosure: Contents of this post are related to, but not quoted from, Ilchi Lee’s book, I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years: The Ancient Secret to Longevity, Vitality, and Life Transofrmation, which served as the basis for a prior post on TDWI, These 8 Life-Changing Tips Will Help You Age Well.
Ilchi Lee is a visionary, educator, and a New York Times bestselling author. He has penned more than 40 books including his most recent title, Water Up Fire Down. He founded the mind-body practices of Body & Brain Yoga and Brain Education and established the Earth Citizen Movement.
He also founded the accredited University of Brain Education and Global Cyber University in South Korea, as well as the non-profit International Brain Education Association (IBREA) in New York, which has special consultative status with the United Nations.
In addition to his study of traditional Asian medicine, Lee has a bachelor’s degree in clinical pathology from Dankook University in his native South Korea. He currently spends much of his time developing a sustainable-living retreat center in New Zealand.