Keeping your mind mighty

Flex your mental muscles to help ward off
cognitive decline as you age.

As the average length of retirement increases, retirees have more opportunities to enjoy experiences, explore interests and create more memories with loved ones. To help protect those memories—and preserve the ability to learn new things and navigate retirement as aging occurs—it’s important to keep the mind strong.
 
Aging adults face the possibility of developing cognitive disorders that can cause dementia, a decline in thinking skills including memory, reasoning, focus and judgment. Although there are several types of disorders known to cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of decreased abilities among those 65 and older.1 And while a cognitive disorder can be debilitating to the affected individual, it can also trigger financial and family challenges for loved ones as they strive to provide the best possible care for those experiencing the disease’s effects.

Dementia in retirement

One in 10 people age 65 and over has Alzheimer's dementia
 
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Luckily, there are things you can do to help prevent or slow cognitive decline. Exercising your mind is key, and physical health and fitness also play a role. The key to strengthening your brain is to regularly work on it. Start building up those mental muscles today by incorporating the following expert-recommended habits and behaviors.
 

Challenge your mind

Experts say that keeping the mind intellectually engaged helps it adapt to and compensate for its age- and health-related changes. For example, learning fresh skills, taking college courses or even working part time or volunteering can all stimulate your brain. In many cases, pursuing your passions can help. One government study showed that older adults who took quilting or digital photography classes had greater memory improvement than their peers who pursued other activities that were less cognitively demanding.2
 
Other ways of challenging your mind are more direct. Specialized courses designed to boost individual cognitive abilities, such as memory, reasoning and processing speed, can create lasting improvements to brainpower. The long-term gains in cognitive ability resulting from such training exercises have been shown to last as long as 10 years for speed and reasoning.3
 
The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in digital courses that are available to you, from structured online courses offered by universities to smartphone apps that help you learn new skills such as foreign languages or investing. Even after the pandemic has subsided, this rise of digital learning may provide retirees who have trouble traveling to classes with an abundance of at-home learning options.
 
Fortunately, you have many activities to choose from with minimal impact on your budget. And compared to the estimated total lifetime cost of a cognitive disorder like dementia, they are a smart investment in your long-term mental and financial well-being.

Maintaining cognitive well-being
may help you avoid some healthcare
expenses in retirement

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Be social

A growing body of evidence indicates that your social life also plays a large role in your physical, mental and cognitive functioning.4 Strong social ties can lower stress levels as well as strengthen mental processes such as memory and attention. Maintaining regular interactions and strong relationships can also help prevent feelings of depression and loneliness, which can cloud the mind and slow cognitive function.
 
Fun activities around the house with friends or loved ones can benefit your brain as well. Studies have shown playing cards or board games, working on puzzles together and engaging in group discussions correlate with a lower risk of cognitive decline over five years.5 Simple pleasures like putting the finishing touch on a puzzle or having a little friendly competition can go a long way toward lasting cognitive health.
 
When socializing at home or going places with friends or family aren’t options—as might be the case for some retirees during the coronavirus pandemic—you can always stay socially engaged online. Try sharing photos and stories with loved ones to test your memory, join a fan group of a favorite activity or cause for some invigorating discussions, or even follow your local library to see which books they’re recommending—and then share your thoughts about them. Social media provides many opportunities for retirees to keep their minds active. In fact, 40% of people age 65 and up are already using at least one social media site.6
 

Keep moving

Many retirees make their physical health a goal, and that can also have positive effects on your brain. Getting enough physical activity isn’t just about maintaining strength and mobility or staving off various chronic diseases—although those are critical goals as we age. Exercise has also been shown to stimulate the brain’s ability to enlarge those parts of itself that deal with memory and learning.7 Studies have even shown that existing memory problems can be improved through regular exercise.5 Aerobic exercise is believed to be the most effective in decreasing a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s,8 though any type of exercise can help.
 
When it comes to physical activity, be sure to exercise at a pace that works for you, being careful not to overdo it. A personal trainer or your physician can help you create a routine that factors in your age, existing conditions or lifestyle to keep you safe as you work out. You can even obtain expert guidance from home, thanks to telehealth services offered by many physicians and covered by Medicare. In general, federal fitness guidelines recommend that older adults move for 30 minutes a day, five (or more) days a week, unless chronic conditions prevent that. Consider something more strenuous if you’re up for a challenge and your doctor gives you the all clear.
 

Maintain your overall mental and financial health

Exercising your mind should always go hand in hand with protecting it. Make sure to get a good night’s sleep as often as possible. Sleep helps your brain recharge and solidify learning and memories. Routine health screenings are also vitally important. Conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes can negatively affect brain function. Keeping up with screenings can help you catch these conditions early to potentially benefit your cognitive abilities and help keep your long-term healthcare costs down.
 
Remember that many of these approaches to preserving cognitive health are intertwined. For example, it’s easier to get a good night’s sleep after you’ve gotten some exercise, and it’s easier to learn a new hobby or skill when you’re well-rested. The important thing is to start somewhere—and then add new habits as you’re able to.
 
By maintaining your cognitive well-being and potentially avoiding many of the healthcare expenses associated with various brain disorders, you’ll be able to better enjoy retirement on your terms and cherish memories for years to come. For those who are living with a cognitive disorder, it’s never too late to slow its advance. And to help reduce the potential impact the disorder can have on your family, there are ways you can help ease the financial burden on them. To learn what options you might want to consider and incorporate into your financial plan, contact your TIAA Wealth Management Advisor.
“2020 Alzheimer’s Disease: Facts & Figures,” brightfocus.org, updated March 2019
2 “The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, 2014
3 “Ten-year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults,” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, 2013
4 “Mentally Sharp,” longevity.stanford.edu, as of June 2020
5 “Protecting against cognitive decline,” health.harvard.edu, as of June 2020
6 Pew Research Center, Social Media Fact Sheet, www.pewresearch.org, June 12, 2019
7 “How Exercise Affects Our Memory,” nytimes.com, 2019
8 “Here’s Why Aerobic Exercise May Protect Aging Brains from Dementia Symptoms,” healthline.com, 2019
 
Advisory services are provided by Advice & Planning Services, a division of TIAA-CREF Individual & Institutional Services, LLC, a registered investment adviser.
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