MANCHESTER — At age 92, Ellie Freedman is legally blind and uses a rolling walker to navigate the halls of her retirement community. But she has a keen ear for breaking news and Red Sox winnings, and stays sharp by leading a study group on America’s founding fathers for 25 other residents at Birch Hill.
She’s also an executive editor for the Banner, the continuing care retirement community’s 12-page newspaper, which involves assigning stories, juggling layout and editing submissions and photos — which she does with the aid of a magnifying machine. Last month she gave a presentation at the Currier Museum of Art on the architect who designed her Bedford home.
When it comes to preserving memory and cognition, she doesn’t waste words. “You use it or lose it. It’s the same as any other muscle. For many of us, it’s 70 years since we studied anything. I need this to keep my mind going.”
Freedman’s prescription for aging well, and avoiding the minefield of memory and cognitive decline, comes close to experts’ guidelines for preserving mental agility and forestalling dementia. Social interaction, intellectual stimulation, and challenges that don’t simply repeat a comfortable routine are keys to preserving brain function in later years, according to memory research.
Also critical is something seldom associated with mental ability: physical exercise — especially cardiovascular activity that boosts heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain.
“Many older people are sedentary, and that’s really sabotaging them,” said Dr. Maureen O’Connor, a neuropsychologist and co-author of “Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not, and What to Do About It.” O’Connor spoke recently at Birch Hill to roughly 150 southern New Hampshire seniors. “If there’s anything I could wish for older adults, it would be: Start exercising. If there’s any magic bullet for successful aging, that would be exercise.”
The research is extensive and follows patient outcomes. Cardiovascular exercise for 30 minutes five days a week — which can be divided into three 10-minute sessions a day — improves blood flow, blood pressure and cholesterol levels; reduces the risks of falling, heart disease, strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs); prevents back pain and lessens muscle and joint pain; and increases emotional well-being and self-esteem. It can be as effective at treating depression as medication, and also reduces anxiety.
Heart-rate boosting exercise — walking, swimming, dancing, jogging, cycling, or working out on a rowing or elliptical machine, improves the brain’s capacity to learn, perform executive functions such as planning, prioritizing and initiating, and bumps up processing speed by increasing connections between brain cells. It also spurs the growth of neurons in the brain’s memory center. Research shows that lifelong exercise helps stave off dementia.
“If a physician prescribes it, people are much more likely to do it,” said O’Connor, who is director of neuropsychology at the Bedford, Mass., Veterans Administration Hospital, and associate director of education at Boston University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “Even 10-minute increments during the day is helpful, and it can be as simple as walking from the car to work.”
But exercise isn’t the only game-changer — especially for those whose conditions limit physical activity. Also critically important is regular social interaction through clubs, religious groups, volunteering, work, shared meals, outings and casual friendships — and intellectual stimulation through lectures, cultural events and taking a class or learning something new, including a musical instrument, foreign language or a hobby.
Although not a professional educator, Freedman served as director of the N.H. Association of School Principals and the state’s school improvement program before retiring at 67. She commuted weekly for 20 years to classes at the Harvard Institute for Learning and Retirement, where she studied history and literature, and “whatever people were passionate about.
“I’ve always needed a cause,” she said. “If I didn’t do something in retirement I’d be dead.” Her advice to others: “Find an interest and get involved in it, whether it’s taking classes or helping others.”
After working 27 years as a registered nurse, Sandi Albom, 62, of Hooksett became an ordained Episcopal minister at age 61. She now serves as a curate at All Saints Church in Peterborough, and a chaplain in addiction recovery.
“I stay stimulated,” Albom said. “I try to eat well and stay healthy. I read a lot and drive a lot and listen to podcasts. I play a lot of word games on my phone; I know each works my brain in a different way.”
She now takes a zentangle class which allows her to pray and meditate while copying patterns. “It’s similar to walking a labyrinth,” she said. “It helps me focus my thoughts.”
Strategy games such as bridge and chess are intellectually and socially stimulating, but according to recent findings, Sudoku, crossword puzzles and brain-enhancing apps do not improve overall cognitive function.
“Doing sudoku and crossword puzzles will make you better at sudoku and crossword puzzles,” said O’Connor.
Expensive mind-training computer modules similarly have no spillover effect; lawsuits have successfully challenged manufacturers’ claims of brain rejuvenation. “My advice is to save your money and do something else you enjoy.”
Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire's aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at email@example.com or (603) 206-1514. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.