I approached without reservation – as a teenager who wanted to become a writer might do – and began a conversation.
I not only asked his name, but his age as well. Turns out he was my uncle-in-law's father, and he was 92 years old — something I could not believe! Oh, I acknowledged his relationship with my uncle-in-law. But 92 years old?
This man was tall, lean, straight, well-spoken and with a terrific sense of humor. I needed to know his secret – if there was one – to aging so well. And indeed, there was, he volunteered: "Never stop working and never stop learning. Keep your brain active, and that, my dear, is the true secret to staying young and in love with life."
Because he was such a wonderful role model, I've tried to follow his advice all these years. And as I look around me, those who seem to be doing the same – working at something, learning- seem to be aging just as well.
Ed, one of my longtime friends, enjoys learning new languages. Terry is involved with art classes and has recently begun studying how to dabble in clay. Toby learned how to ski when she was past 50, and is now taking piano lesson. I have taken graduate classes, love to travel and dance, and basically keep up with what that old, but very wise, man told me years ago.
Indeed, colleges and adult-education classes seem to be flourishing all around the city. People – no matter their age – are beginning to understand the benefits of keeping the mind busy long after college days are behind them. Maybe you can't do what you used to do, but you can expand your horizons by traveling, taking up new sports, enrolling in courses and developing new hobbies.
Just Keep Going!
Perhaps Hippocrates said it best: "That which is used develops; that which is not used wastes away." And the experts agree.
For instance, Carol Lippa, M.D., professor of neurology and director of the Memory Center at Drexel University College of Medicine, says, "I think with respect to memory loss and Alzheimer's disease and dementia, there's evidence that shows those who keep their minds active do much better, and are less likely to develop one of those problems.
"That includes both mental activities like doing puzzles and things that challenge your mind, as well as engaging in social activities in groups; traveling; things you find you can enjoy. Educating yourself and trying to keep on learning most definitely seems to work."
She points to several studies that conclude that patients with Alzheimer's disease have reduced activity in mid-life. And while there's no guaranteed way to prevent the disease, there seems to be a way to forestall it.
According to Lippa, "It almost seems like it doesn't matter what you do. There's not one specific thing that's better than another. The key is to find something you really enjoy so you can sustain it, and not to make learning something so difficult that it's frustrating."
Puzzles, Board Games and Cards
Kathryn Jedrziewski, Ph.D., deputy director of the University of Pennsylvania Institute on Aging, says research out there shows people who have higher educations have lower risks of getting dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
"We don't know why, and we don't now what causes it," she says. "We're not sure if there's some kind of disease process already starting from infancy that predisposes somebody to not continue in school as long as someone else. But we're looking into it."
But there is research out there that examines the cause and effect of education, she relays: "An article in the New England Journal of Medicine, published in 2003, looked at people 75-85 who did not have dementia at the beginning of the study. The researchers followed these people from l980 to 2001, and followed up every year thereafter.
"They looked at things like reading, writing, those who did crossword puzzles, played board games and cards, enrolled in discussion groups and learned to play musical instruments. And what they discovered was that people who pursued more of the cognitive activities in life usually had lower risk of getting Alzheimer's disease or dementia."
Physical activities have also been studied, and the end result seems to be this: Keep busy and study new things. Education at any age is the key. And just as that wonderful 92-year-old man I met so many years ago said, "That, my dear, is truly the way to stay young and in love with life."