When Ilena Aslin retired in 1991, she moved to Cape Girardeau, knowing the intellectual atmosphere from Southeast Missouri State University would suit her. She became an active volunteer, delivering Meals on Wheels and working with groups that help grandparents who are rearing grandchildren.
Today, at 85, Aslin feels good about her mental acuity and believes her community service activities are vital in keeping her brain working at its full potential.
"I'm doing good for others while doing good for myself," said the former executive with the Girl Scouts of the USA.
To help others develop plans for keeping their brains agile, AARP Missouri is organizing a workshop March 29 in Doniphan.
A goal of the "Staying Sharp — Aging Wisely" workshop is to explain the different kinds of memory loss: normal age-related forgetfulness, dementia and Alzheimer's disease. R. Diane Hall, AARP Missouri associate state director for community outreach, said it will also cover help that's available.
A 2011 survey of Missouri residents 50 and older found that 95 percent said staying mentally sharp is important, but fewer than half of them felt they have all the resources they need to accomplish that goal.
The free workshop will feature speakers from the Southeast Missouri Area Agency on Aging, the Alzheimer's Association, the University of Missouri Extension and the Ripley County Public Health Center.
Attendees will receive booklets on quality of life, memory loss due to aging, depression, chronic health issues and lifelong learning. The workshop and pamphlets are based on a project created by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and NRTA: AARP's Educator Community. It focuses on understanding how the brain works and how people can maximize brain function and brain health, particularly as they age.
Gary Small, M.D., coauthor of a book on preventing Alzheimer's, said genes are responsible for only about a third of how long and how well people live.
"The lifestyle choices we make every day may be the biggest factor in living better longer and preventing Alzheimer's disease."
Rob Hulstra, community outreach coordinator at the Alzheimer's Association — Southwest Missouri Chapter, will lead two sessions and stress the importance of having social connections.
"Be with people you care about," Hulstra regularly tells audiences. "Older persons with fewer social ties are more likely to develop memory decline than others with stronger ties to family."
Hulstra also recommends joining a book club, reading to children at an elementary school, volunteering and doing brain exercises such as learning a new language or taking up a new hobby.
"Just like your muscles, your brain needs exercise, too," he said.
Workshop speakers will recommend other steps to keep aging minds sharp: reduce tension and stress; avoid distractions; slow the pace of daily life; concentrate to absorb new information, including writing it, visualizing it and repeating it aloud.
Another suggestion is to vary a routine walking route, forcing the brain to pick out new cues.
What you do matters
Richard Restak, M.D., a professor of neurology at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., said people "have lots of latitude making choices of how their brain will age, based on social contacts, diets, cessation of smoking and much more. We can influence aging favorably."
Hall said she and other speakers will offer exercises to help promote mental acuity.
The "tell yourself a story" memory game is one of Hall's favorites. She begins by showing the audience 15 to 20 objects or a photo of them. After removing the photo or objects from sight, she finds out how many of the objects those in the audience can recall.
"Then you tell them a story," Hall said, "using the objects as part of the story. For example, if the objects are an apple, a key, and a cellphone, the story might start with 'Steve saw an apple on a tree, but it was behind a locked gate. He tried his key, but it wouldn't work. So he got out his cellphone to call Anita to see if she would help.' "
Hall said the memory game "illustrates how much better things are remembered if you connect them."
The March 29 workshop is 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the First Church of God, 506 Pine St., Doniphan. Admission is free, and lunch will be provided. Participants must register by calling the Ripley County Public Health Center at 573-996-2181.
Steve Weinberg is a writer living in Columbia, Mo.
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