In life, we have all kinds of teachers: first-grade teachers, biology teachers, ballet teachers. While they may have been responsible for teaching us how to read, how to dissect a frog or how to do the perfect plié, they also taught us perhaps one of the most important lessons about aging: Teaching can save your brain. You're far more likely to retain information if you have to explain it to somebody else. The degree to which you can effectively explain information indicates how well you've actually learned it.
The lesson: Take advantage of mentoring opportunities—whether it's instructing a class in your favorite hobby at a community college, or inviting the neighborhood teens over to teach them how to change a tire or make a soufflé. Teach the next generation, and you'll power up your own generator.
Be a Lifelong Learner
Yeah, sure, we know what your ideal picture of retirement looks like: One hammock, one baby blue ocean, four naps a day. That's great and all, but one of the best ways to ensure that your mind doesn't liquidate into the consistency of a piña colada is to continue to give it a reason to function. Work it. Challenge it. Teach it new things.
When you increase your learning during life, you decrease the risk of developing memory-related problems. That means your brain has a fighting chance—if you keep it active and engaged, if you keep challenging it with new lessons, if you learn a new game or new hobby or new vocation. You have to challenge your mind—even making it a little uncomfortable by pushing yourself to learn tasks that may not come naturally. Doing tough tasks reinforces the neural connections that are important to preserving memory. Like a clutch athlete, your mind has a way of rising to the occasion. Challenge it, and it will reward you.
Stop and Think About Thinking
Like breathing, thinking is designed to be an automatic process. Don't believe us? Then do this. Don't think of a bruised banana. Don't picture it. Don't let the image cross your mind. Ha! The only thing you can think of right now is that darn banana. The point here is that you can't do anything but think when you're thinking. Thinking is an involuntary reflex; while you can often control what you think about, thinking is as natural as an ocean's ecosystem—stuff kind of floats around and goes where it wants to go.
Now, try this when you're doing a simple activity, like waking up. Instead of just rolling out of bed, splashing water on your face, and dreading your 8 a.m. meeting, think about your surroundings: Listen for birds, notice the drips of water beading down your leg in the shower, savor the sips from your orange juice, think about every tooth you're brushing. It doesn't take any more time; it just helps train your brain. We're not trying to go all philosophic on you; thinking about the thought process is really about awareness and is one of the tools you can use to strengthen your neural connections.
See If Your Genes Fit
If you have a family history of memory-related problems and are comfortable with genetic testing, you can have your level of Apo E4 protein checked. That will help you determine whether you're more or less predisposed to clearing that gunky beta-amyloid from your neural wiring. You can find out more about the test on ARUPLab.com, AthenaDiagnostics.com or RealAge.com. No matter what your result, know that obesity and alcohol increase expression of the gene, while exercise decreases the amount of Apo E4 in the blood.