Stay Mentally Sharp: 4 Tips From 100-year-old Sisters On How To Stay mentally Sharp As You Age
Ruth Sweedler said she may be 103 years old, but she does not talk like “an old lady.” Sweedler, who lives in a retirement home in Connecticut, has an excellent memory and is a superb conversationalist on current events. Her skills have been admired by both her family members and others over the years.
“My doctor loves to talk to me,” Sweedler said in an interview with CNBC Make It. “He’d say, ‘You’re amazing.’ And I’d say, ‘Because I’m old?’ And he’d say, ‘No! Because you’re sophisticated.’”
Sweedler said she also does not feel that she’s old, and her 106-year-old sister, Shirley Hodes feels the same way. “I’m not that old!” Hodes, who lives at an independent living facility in North Carolina, told CNBC Make It. “I don’t feel old, that’s the truth.”
Unlike some older adults who like to do crossword puzzles to keep their mind engaged, Hodes is not a fan of word puzzles. She finds other ways to keep mentally sharp. “I always did a lot of reading,” she said. “That’s the best thing for your mind.”
Health experts say it is important that older adults find ways to not only stay physically healthy but mentally healthy as well. AARP is committed to helping seniors do this with “Staying Sharp,” a digital program that offers content, tools, games, and other activities that support brain health.
AARP says its Staying Sharp program follows guidance from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent organization created by AARP and Age UK, a London, England-based organization that supports older adults in the United Kingdom.
The information GCBH offers on how to maintain and improve brain health is based on the latest scientific evidence provided by scientists, health professionals, scholars, and policy experts from around the world.
Using current brain research, the GCBH and AARP’s Staying Sharp program identified six “lifestyle pillars” that support brain health:
- Be social. Studies show that staying socially active by connecting with family and friends and participating in stimulating conversation can protect against memory loss.
- Engage Your Brain. Learning new things, such as a foreign language, a new hobby, and feeding your curiosity, helps the brain by challenging it to learn and adapt to new things.
- Manage stress. Everyday stress as well as prolonged stress caused by ongoing circumstances can affect brain functions, such as memory, mood, and anxiety.
- Ongoing exercise. Regular physical exercise improves blood flow and memory. In addition, studies have found that people who exercise on a regular basis have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
- Restorative sleep. Getting enough sleep helps improve your mood and immune system. Resting well may also reduce buildup in the brain of beta-amyloid plaque, an abnormal protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Eat Right. Nutritious foods, such as those containing fish oil or omega-3, and protein have consistently shown possible benefits to brain health.
While AARP and GCBH recommendations are based on scientific research, Sweedler and Hodes offer recommendations on how to stay mentally sharp based on their combined life experiences of over two centuries:
According to Hodes, if you’re fortunate enough to have a job you like, embrace it. Being completely occupied in your work is “very important,” she said. After all, making the most of your abilities makes life more fulfilling and enjoyable, she claims.
Hodes said she got a full-time job as a paraprofessional and a teacher’s aide when her two children were older. She worked for nearly 20 years and retired when she was 70. “I loved working at the high school,” she said.
Hodes said her dream job is to work as a journalist because she “always loved interviewing people.” She uses her interviewing skills to meet residents in her assisted living facility.
Sweedler said she loved working as an amateur actress in local theater productions. She was also “very active” in her synagogue and in different Jewish organizations.
2. Connect with Family and Friends
Sweedler and Hodes say that family and friends can have an enormous impact on you, and both say that a “good marriage” is very important.
Hodes said she was very fortunate that she and her husband had a “wonderful relationship” up until his death. Sweedler said she had a good relationship with her husband, too. Although her husband is deceased, Sweedler says she sees her family and receives visits from the former president of her congregation and her rabbi.
Unlike some people who are only interested in themselves, Hodes said she has always been interested in “hearing people’s stories, backgrounds. They’re full of surprises.” Since people like to talk about themselves, Hodes recommends giving people “a chance to open up and remember what they tell you.”
3. Never Stop Learning
The sisters recommend that seniors challenge themselves by continuing to learn. For instance, Hodes said as soon as she retired, she enrolled in auditing classes at a nearby college because of her thirst for knowledge. Hodes did well in the class even though she had to sit in the front row to see and hear the instructor. She also enjoys art and literature.
“I have some wonderful books,” she said. Recently, she’s been listening to nonfiction audiobooks about elephants, the Jews of Salonika, and the U.S. opera singer Jessye Norman. “They’re quite different from my background,” and that makes the content exciting: “There’s always so much to learn!”
Sweedler said when she was younger, she enjoyed going to the theater with her friends. Now, reading is her passion. She watches very little TV, except for the news and her favorite show, “60 Minutes” on CBS.
4. Be Grateful For What You Have
Hodes and Sweedler were the youngest of eight children living in a small apartment with their immigrant parents who struggled to make ends meet. So, going to college was not an option. Hodes said this is one of her few regrets in life. However, she understands that “you can’t have everything.” And “when you have the important things in life, you have to realize it.”
“My secret? I’m a lucky person,” Hodes said. “Although I’ve had illnesses and problems, I’ve overcome them. I’m in decent health, enjoying health, thankful for a wonderful life. That sustains me and keeps me going.”
Sweedler used to walk several miles every day. But now, she says her mobility is so poor that she can hardly go outside of her house, and she can no longer travel. She wishes her physical strength matched her mental strength. Nonetheless, she is appreciative of what she has: “I can still read, and I read lovely things,” she said.
Sweedler’s sister shares the same viewpoint. “Disposition doesn’t hurt” if you want to live a long time in good health, Hodes said. “I am content. I’ve been fortunate.”