How do I stop my brain turning to mush?
December 21, 2008 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I am approaching 40. How do I stop my brain turning to mush?
posted by MrMerlot to Education (23 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Read. Graze. Follow your interests. Get physical activity. Dance. Eat right. Sleep right. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Cultivate friendships.
Your brain won't turn to mush; it will get better.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:52 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Write everything down, so that you have a backup brain. My memory is noticeably less agile than it used to be.
posted by b33j at 11:57 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Exercise your brain. Learn new skills, take up a new hobby, read, a lot.
posted by COD at 12:07 PM on December 21, 2008

[Hello age peer!] Embrace and enjoy life, keep learning, laughing, stay curious and do not be paranoid about this shit.
posted by applemeat at 12:14 PM on December 21, 2008

In my experience the brain isn't any trouble at all, it's the body that turns to mush.

Don't worry about it. Find a gym you like.
posted by Ookseer at 12:17 PM on December 21, 2008

I agree that you need to exercise your brain. But think about what "exercise" means: it is never the same as relaxing. No pain, no gain. If the Monday crossword puzzle is really easy for you, it's not exercise -- just as lifting a one-ounce weight isn't exercise. Mental exercise means REGULARLY getting outside your mental comfort zone; regularly straining your brain.

I believe that 40-(50 and 60...)-year-old brains are just as capable of being non-mushy as 20-year-old brains. True, our brains lose some agility as we age, but that's relatively a small amount compared to other (fixable) reasons why people often decline as they get older.

Personally, I'm more mentally agile now than I was in my teens and twenties, because I'm getting more mental exercise now than I was then. Maybe I would have been even sharper back then than I am now, had I been doing the same amount of work back then as I am now. But I doubt I would have been that much sharper.

Here's why people decline as they age:

- it takes about ten years to master something. It takes a 15-year-old ten years to master something. But he isn't generally aware of this, because he's forced to master all sorts of things (e.g. in school). As adults, we're rarely forced to master anything new. When we try, we get fed up if we haven't achieved mastery after a few weeks. At which point we give up. Don't do that. Embrace the ten years. What would you like to have mastered by the time you're fifty? Start now. Expect it to be difficult.

- when you're younger, your brain is forced to work overtime, because you can't help but encounter many new things each day. Young brains have to process all that new stuff. Learning about new stuff can be fun, but you do more mental work when the new is at least a little unpleasant. If it's totally pleasant, that means it's probably mostly familiar. If it's mostly familiar (e.g. a new kind of cake that still is pretty much like cakes you've had before), it doesn't cause your brain to work very hard.

As adults, we have much more control over our environments than we did as kids. So naturally we work to reduce unpleasantness. But if you want an agile brain, it's imperative that you at least flirt with the harsh and dangerous. That doesn't have to mean hang gliding. It can mean public speaking or anything difficult that could lead to failure. You need to push past the failure and keep trying.

To sum up, mental exercise is key, but only if it's not comfortable exercise. Learn a foreign language and start reading novels in that language -- it will be slow going and you'll have to look up many words; work your way through all of Shakespeare's plays, looking up all words you don't understand; teach yourself Calculus; teach yourself computer programming; etc. As soon as you master anything, take a day to celebrate and then move onto the next "impossible" task.

I HIGHLY recommend big projects coupled with responsibility. In other words, don't just do Sudoku puzzles. Do something that takes time to complete, involves many difficult steps, and involves letting people down if you fail to complete it.

Personally, I direct plays, write books, and program computers. All of these are -- in general -- fun activities for me. But I do continually hit walls. But if I hit one when I'm, say, directing a play, I can't just say "Fuck it" and quit. I have to work through it. About 60% of time when I'm directing, writing or programming, I'm struggling really hard to overcome a problem.

You must struggle to overcome problems!
posted by grumblebee at 12:32 PM on December 21, 2008 [21 favorites]

Smoke weed.
posted by gman at 12:36 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

It is the body that's turning to mush, and all the physical aspects of your brain that go along with it. After the age of 25 or something I believe you lose hundreds of neurons a day, but the percentage lost is so slight that it doesn't really matter. And you always have your productive intellect. I like the recommendation to learn another language, or better yet, travel somewhere and immerse yourself in a new culture and learn it that way. As Bob Dylan says, "he not busy being born is busy dying". At what age we allow the summit of our lives to be reached is entirely up to us.
posted by ageispolis at 12:49 PM on December 21, 2008

Smoke weed.

This does not help one's brain from being turned to mush.

I work in a lab that investigates memory and aging. One consistent factor that seems to have a huge impact is the amount of social obligation people engage in. Older folks who are more social tend to be a lot sharper than those who are reclusive. This is totally anecdotal, and of course one should read, do mental exercises, etc., but I think that having a healthy social life has a huge impact on how healthy your brain will be as you age.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:52 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

This does not help one's brain from being turned to mush.

Prevents Alzheimer's, which is about as mushy as an aging brain can get, save blunt force trauma or a microwave.
posted by ageispolis at 1:09 PM on December 21, 2008

I love grumblebee's answer and would like to add this: learn a musical instrument.

Playing the piano, or the cello, involves kinetic movement, hand-mind coordination, the ability to read music - and music will touch your soul as well. It doesn't matter whether you play Bach or old favourites from Elton John - the key is the practice, the focus, and working through the problems.

Do something that you will become passionate about. After all, this is a long-term investment, so choose carefully. Play a musical instrument, learn a new language - or learn how to rock climb.

Engage your mind, body and spirit - and your brain will not only stop turning to mush, but it will blossom and thrive. It will be an investment of time as well as of money - but how much of a price do you want to put on training your brain?
posted by seawallrunner at 1:48 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

learn a new language - this will exercise parts of your brain that have been dormant for years, or at least I know older people who very much believe this.
posted by figTree at 1:53 PM on December 21, 2008

i'm trying to find the report just recently released by the ___homina homina___ organization (if i knew who it was, it'd be easier to find!) which stated:

recent brain research has discovered that, contrary to recent pronouncements, it is indeed the act of staying engaged socially -- with friends, family, volunteering, etc., -- that keeps a brain nimble. yes, doing crossoword puzzles is good in some ways, but the most lasting impact comes from staying engaged socially.

once i find it, i'll come back and link it. but get out there and engage with people!
posted by CitizenD at 2:05 PM on December 21, 2008

I'm just going to take this opportunity to tell a story. I had put my mother in a nursing home--neither she nor I could any longer take care of her needs. She was 84 and little mini strokes were taking away her brain function. A close friend, who was older by about ten years, came to visit my mother in the nursing home. She was confined to a wheelchair, but during her visit, she made a point of catching my eye, and she pointed to the "Obama '08" button she was wearing.

So much of our destiny is predetermined by genetics; if there's a family history of Alzheimers, for instance, god bless you. In any event, just rock out with your balls out, is the best advice I can give.
posted by Restless Day at 2:56 PM on December 21, 2008

My grandfather is nearly 97 and swears by the cryptic crossword as the way to keep one's mind active. He's been doing them every day for decades and his mind is still pretty sharp for his age.

He until recently (since, well, many have died and he finally went to a nursing home a few months ago) has long had a busy social life at his seniors club.

I am starting to do more puzzles now I'm turning 30, and spending more time learning languages (my grandparents learnt French when they turned 60 and loved the challenge).
posted by wingless_angel at 3:46 PM on December 21, 2008

I'm months away from 40, and I think I'm as sharp now as when I was in my late teens. I ascribe this to playing a lot of Scrabble and doing GAMES Magazine cover to cover every issue.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 4:32 PM on December 21, 2008

Prevents Alzheimer's, which is about as mushy as an aging brain can get, save blunt force trauma or a microwave.

Nicotine and caffeine also help prevent Alzheimers.
posted by delmoi at 6:08 PM on December 21, 2008

Prevents Alzheimer's, which is about as mushy as an aging brain can get, save blunt force trauma or a microwave.

Nicotine and caffeine also help prevent Alzheimers.

Right, a daily regimen of weed, coffee and cigarettes for mental health it is.

To be serious, physical exercise has a demonstrated benefit of helping to preserve mental function. So exercise your body as well as your mind. And go easy on the merlot.
posted by nanojath at 7:52 PM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Healthy living's great for the brain but real brain exercise in the form of learning, preferably in a class, keeps things sharper. Take a course.
posted by airplain at 7:57 PM on December 21, 2008

I agree that social connections are the key. My socially involved, outgoing grandmother was sharp as a tack until she died. My stepfather is 71, still works, volunteers regularly, takes dancing classes, and goes to the theater with my mother. He can engage you in conversation on almost any topic.

My reclusive grandparents, whose only apparent hobby is watching TV, are dumb as rocks.
posted by desjardins at 9:13 AM on December 22, 2008

Sadly, if you believe it's turning forty that causes mushy brain, it already has.
posted by dinger at 10:39 AM on December 22, 2008

What dinger said.

I recommend a book called Aged by Culture by Margaret Gullette. She points out that our entire culture tells us that 40 (which is still young, by the way) is the beginning of the downhill slide. That's a myth perpetuated by the advertising industry. They want us to feel like crap and buy all their useless shit that supposedly staves off aging.

If you think your memory lapses are the result of turning 40, it's probably because you've been trained to interpret them that way.

When I was in my 20s, people called me a "ditz" or "spacey" because I'd forget things and be inattentive. This was a result of anxiety. Now that I'm 41, I rarely notice it happening and I feel I'm only getting smarter with the years.

But if I still had those dingbat moments, and had been socialized to believe the age myths (which thanks to my wonderful 67-years-young Mum, I wasn't), I'd probably think they were from turning 40 and not from being a space cadet or having ADD or whatever excuse I had back then.

It's like the 20-year-old who goes to the gym and aches the next morning thinking "it's because I had a good workout" vs. the 40-year-old who does the same and feels the same and thinks "it's because I'm getting old."

When people in my age range call themselves "old," or even "middle-aged," or joke about senior moments and memory lapses and all that shit, I always just do a double take. I mean, are you serious? Because if we live to be 80 now, that means we are old for half our lives, and that just isn't logical.

If you're having serious memory lapses at 40, it's not "just normal aging!"

And the same goes for other body-mind-breakdown stuff. More often than not, stuff we assume is naturally age-related is lifestyle-related. Don't sweat it and stay away from those toxic messages in the media.
posted by xenophile at 12:44 PM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Keep up with technology -- I notice that older people who don't tend to be left behind socially, politically, educationally, etc. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you didn't know how to use the internet? So whatever the next thing is (and the thing after that, and after that, etc.), learn it and use it.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:05 AM on December 30, 2008

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