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  • Patricia Faust

Your Brain on Retirement


Finally – RETIREMENT! The chance to kick back, relax and get out of the rat race. It is a goal we all share, especially on very stressful workdays. Have you ever thought about or even planned for the cognitive functioning of your brain on retirement? Chances are that wasn’t the topmost priority as you put all of your retirement plans in place.


The Workplace – Novel and Complex

The reality of the workplace is – it is a complex environment that challenges your brain. There is always something that you need to take care of. No matter what, you are making decisions and determining the best way to do your job. You have colleagues you work with and clients or customers you interact with on a daily basis. What happens to your brain when you remove yourself from that environment?


The Relax Stage of Retirement

Initially the release from the day-to-day grind of working will enable your brain to relax. You might experience the euphoria you feel on a very relaxing vacation. This positive feeling will confirm your joy of being retired. Having all the time you need to do whatever you want is its own reward. Once you are feeling refreshed again, your brain needs stimulation. It needs exercise and socialization. If you don’t satisfy the basic needs of remaining cognitively sharp, your brain will start a steep aging decline in functioning.


The brain has the ability to adapt to its environment. If you are in a challenging environment your brain will reorganize itself by creating new connections between brain cells. These connections accommodate communication in your brain. Your speed of processing (how fast you think and respond) stays at a higher level. In the workplace you challenge your brain to keep up.

If you haven’t made plans to replace these challenges in retirement your brain responds to a more sedentary, less challenging environment. The brain slows down and, in some cases, – dramatically. Depending on your lifestyle you can actually place yourself at a higher risk of developing dementia.


Preventing the Cognitive Cascade

So, what can you do to keep this cognitive cascade from happening? You have to draw up a brain healthy lifestyle plan. This plan is every bit as important as your retirement financial plan. What do you include in this plan? Generally, you need to have a strategy for staying physically active. Physical exercise can grow new neurons in the hippocampus – the center of learning and memory. Walking is an easy and effective way to fulfill the physical exercise component. Your walking goal should be at least 30 minutes of brisk walking 3 times per week at a minimum. Playing golf certainly would be an effective way of getting your walking in. Physical exercise actually grows new brain cells. As we get older, we lose brain mass from cells and connections that die off. It is essential to replace those cells and connections in order to maintain a high functioning brain. Without new cells budding, our brain takes a nosedive in cognitive function because we lose cells in the prefrontal cortex, the executive center of the brain.


Use It or Lose It

Now you have to use these new cells, or the brain will let them die! Mental stimulation will keep these new cells active and help build new neural pathways. You must challenge your brain to stimulate it. Crossword puzzles and Sudoku don’t fit the bill because your brain adapts to those challenges. If you increase the difficulty or put time limits on completion you are making the activity more challenging. But get more creative with mental stimulation. You can mentor or volunteer, travel, learn a musical instrument or a new language. Older brains are more patient and creative so you can try doing things you have always dreamed about. Your brain will love that!


Connect with Other People

It is really important to get out of the house and be with other people. Isolation breeds depression. Retirement is a huge transition and being at home all day can be very depressing after awhile. You need to interact with other people either in person or on social media, Facetime, or Skype. The art of conversation and debate is a big brain booster. Connecting with others increases cognitive abilities.


Eat Right

When you are home all the time you can get very lazy about what kinds of meals you fix and eat. It is a shame but when we have the luxury of time to cook, we forego eating nutritiously. We don’t talk about food with other people and we get bored with our meals. Time to turn on some cooking shows that teach you how to prepare nutritious food. Eating fast food and processed food drags our brain down. At this point in our lives we need to give the brain exactly what it needs to function on a high level. The Mediterranean diet is sometimes referred to as the brain health diet. We need to eat dark leafy green vegetables, dark skinned fruit, good fats like Olive oil ,food sources of Omega 3 fatty acids like cold water fatty fish (Salmon, Mackerel), walnuts, flaxseed, citrus for vitamin C, other antioxidants and polyphenols (red wine, dark chocolate) make up some of the foods on the Mediterranean food list.


Sleep

Now you have the time to get some good sleep. 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night is recommended. This is the time that your brain, through the work of the hippocampus, encodes and consolidates memories. Your brain also has a cleaning system at night – the Glymphatic system – that flushes away toxins, cell debris and plaque. Without good sleep you put yourself at a higher risk for dementia.


Finally, Stress

Granted, your workplace may have been a stress compound. This is probably the reason you look forward to retirement – to get out from under the stress. Our brain is hardwired to sense threat/stress so you may never escape it. No matter what you need to learn how to decompress and calm down. There will always be something in your life that will cause you stress. It is time to learn how to step back and let it go instead of reacting to every little thing that comes your way.


Purpose

Maybe your career was your purpose in life. Once you walk out those doors you are left with nothing – or so you think. This is your time to decide what your second act will be. And the beauty of it is – it can be anything you want. It is better to have plans to fall into when you retire – you have done all the preparation to enjoy your second act because you know what your purpose is. Don’t fret if you don’t have it all worked out. Take your time and try on different roles. When you find the role that lights you up, you have found your purpose. This could be one of the best times in your life.

Most of us will spend a lot of years in retirement. Plan to make it the best years of your life with a healthy brain and a healthy body.

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