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by Barbra Rodríguez, AARP VIVA, October 2006
For Francisco Montoya, music is more than entertainment. It’s exercise for his brain. Since he stopped forging steel in Chicago 15 years ago, he’s been forging boleros into memory, fueling a lifelong passion for music—and keeping his brain sharp.
The average lifespan of Hispanics is expected to climb into the upper 80s in coming decades. That’s the good news. But aging also increases the risk of developing conditions that can limit our thinking skills. So start cutting that risk now. Here’s how.
“I’ve sung in English for about six years and in Spanish all my life,” says Montoya, a 65-year-old from Guatemala who sings and plays the guitar at quinceañeras and other celebrations.
Tackling musical arrangements may help keep Montoya’s brain supple and his memory fit. So might composing and singing lyrics in two languages, one of which he learned just six years ago. Researchers say learning a new language as an adult might engage more regions of the brain and work the brain harder.
The payoff may be a brain that functions more creatively despite having fewer brain cells than when you were younger. For example, researchers at the University of Michigan studied brain images and discovered that older people used both halves of their brain simultaneously to handle memorization or other tasks. They performed as well as younger volunteers who used primarily one side.
Another theory holds that the brain becomes stronger—and possibly even larger—when worked hard. Dr. David Espino, who studies Hispanics and aging at the University of Texas, San Antonio, is among those who favor this theory. “It’s just like exercise,” he contends. “The more you exercise the brain, the larger the ‘muscle’ will become.”
What pastimes keep our brains engaged? Reading; playing board games, crosswords, puzzles; and performing similar activities that stimulate the brain are thought to be helpful.
The Company You Keep
Human interaction is another key to brain health. Socializing would seem easy for Latinos, given our traditional focus on family. Yet about 25 percent of Hispanic females and 16 percent of Hispanic males age 65 and older live alone. Such solitude may carry a price if it limits face-to-face contact. A study of residents 65 and older in a Madrid suburb, for example, found that those who had more social ties performed better on mental skills tests and sustained their mental abilities better over four years.
Isolation can also increase the likelihood of depression. Long-term major depression can temporarily harm the region of the brain that plays a role in learning and memory. Because of this link between depression and memory, Espino recommends finding ways to avoid stress—a factor in depression—especially if you are a caregiver or are in another situation that puts you at risk of feeling isolated.
One way to beat stress and gain other brain benefits is to exercise. Physical activity makes the heart pump blood faster to the body, including the brain.
Research suggests that the benefits of physical activity manifest quickly. A study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign of older adults found that brisk walking and other aerobic exercise improved functioning of key parts of the brain. Specifically, participants could better focus on tasks and make decisions. The scientists postulated that proper exercise might produce more connections between certain brain cells to improve their communication and response to tasks.
What exercises work best? Variety may be important, not just in type but in complexity. A study found that volunteers ages 62 to 90 performed better on physical tests after 10 weeks of walking. But those who danced the tango instead of walking were better able to multitask, a complex thinking process.
A 2006 study of volunteers over 65 found that exercising at least three times a week apparently reduced the risk of developing dementia by about one third. The American Heart Association suggests getting 30 minutes of exercise most or all days (but check with your doctor). And exercise might offer benefits even if it hasn’t been a habit in the past.
Maria Sosa, 63, who started exercising again in 2004, attends dance classes, plays pool, and prepares for race-walking competitions to stay mentally sharp. “My mind is always working,” says Sosa. She wants to avoid the fate of her Mexican American mother, who died in her 60s from poor health that culminated in a memory-robbing stroke.
For crossword puzzles or other mind-sharpening games in Spanish and English, visit our Games page.
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