Challenge your aging process
(no. 31) I'm hitting the road, and I hope you'll join me. By Stephen P. Williams
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But first, this: Migraine sufferers find they stop having them in their 70s. While it seems cruel to have to wait so long, the relief must be wonderful. No one knows exactly why the migraines stop.
Grow new brain cells by challenging yourself with something new
Don’t count on it. Photo by Margarida Afonso on Unsplash
Anyone over 40 might notice articles here and there about the importance of keeping your brain fit by doing Sudoku, or taking up new hobbies to make aging go better. It all sounds pretty lame, even as you get really frigging old, like me (62). I can’t see myself taking quizzes on my phone every night, or getting excited about the Sunday crossword. No. Not that I want a degenerative brain illness, but these little steps we hear about just seem like pablum for seniors. And in truth, while they might improve your memory, these games don’t actually make your brain stronger.
Still, there’s no question that the change and stimulation that comes from doing new, complex things is good for people as they age. Getting stuck in a rut can be enervating and make life seem kind of pointless. Challenging yourself intellectually in big new ways (not just puzzles) can actually stimulate new brain cells to grow, according to Ipsit Vahia, director of outpatient services for McLean Hospital, near Boston. Some simple ways to do this include studying a new language or getting a good beginner’s book to teach yourself how to play the piano. Learning to paint is a great challenge for the brain, and a lot of fun, too. Fortunately, given our viral times, you can learn all of these skills in online classes.
Classes are themselves stimulating, in that they force you to use your cognitive skills, and your long and short term memory. They also force you to work with numbers and learn to focus your time, all of which stimulate brain cell growth. Brain decline isn’t inevitable as we age. Your brain and cognitive skills might change, but there’s much you can do to stay mentally younger. One key is to do new, challenging things outside of your comfort zone. If you’re lucky, these classes will also expand your social sphere as you meet and talk to all kinds of new people, even online.
For an activity to improve our brain cell growth and renewal as we age it must be complex and difficult. If classes aren’t your thing, plan a hiking expedition such as a section of the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Trails. Or research local history and design a series of walks to learn about it.
Fears of coronavirus might prevent some people from getting out much in the near future, making it seem harder to try new things. But aside from online classes, a person could start an online salon or book group. Recently a friend of mine and I decided to get some people together on Zoom to talk about the effects of coronavirus on society. We each invited one person. Then, they each invited one person, and so on. Some people dropped out. Others stayed. We’ve had a series of great Sunday morning conversations. It’s been a challenge to organize and to keep good topics and research flowing, but it’s been great for my brain.
This Friday I’m starting a pretty huge challenge in the form of a three-month-long road trip to the heart of America, looking for answers to what people are thinking and feeling during this tumultuous period of virus, riots and electioneering. I’m going to rent a truck in Wichita and start driving around Kansas, where I grew up, talking to strangers and acquaintances about how they’re doing right now, and what they want to see in the world. From there, I’ll follow my instincts as I seek out interesting characters, towns and situations that I hope will help me uncover ever deeper layers of the American consciousness. I’ll sleep in my truck and in roadside motels, and in a tent. For me, meeting new people and allowing for new ideas will be an exciting creative challenge. I feel like I’m really pushing myself with this project, especially at “my age.”
While I’m on the road filing daily reports (Instagram @postcardsfrompandemic will be one key place I post images, videos and text), I’ll continue to write this newsletter, which I love. We have a good audience now, and I want to keep building this community. But my output might be slower every now and then, depending on the rigors of travel. Please be patient with me, and follow along on my trip. I can feel new brain cells growing already.
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That’s all, folks! See you soon from the road.