Ask The Expert - Keeping Your Brain Engaged | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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January 20, 2016

Ask The Expert - Keeping Your Brain Engaged

By Banner Alzheimer's Institute

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Ask the Expert 
Our January expert is Michelle Carlson, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Core Faculty at Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health.

Dear Dr. Carlson,

Early in 2015, my father retired from an interesting career that he enjoyed immensely. Since then, he mostly watches television and doesn’t bother to shave unless he has an appointment. He’s begun saying that his memory is not as sharp as it was while he was working. He’s in good health. How can I convince him that more involvement and structure is good for him?




Dear Thomas,

You and your father are experiencing a scenario I’ve seen many times among new retirees. While people tend to plan for the financial aspects of retirement, fewer create a strategy to remain engaged and involved in life after their retirement. 

Thomas, you mention that your father is concerned about his memory, but that he’s in good health. Talk to him about the last time he had a complete physical, including screenings for cognitive health and depression, and encourage him to make an appointment with his physician. 

In the meantime, the question of how older adults can remain engaged in life is a question many are considering as more baby boomers reach retirement age every day. In fact, by 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts one in five Americans will be 65 years or older.

What factors can impact how people react to day-to-day living without work? Personality, income, marital status and geographic location can all effect how well people adapt to retirement. From my perspective, however, new retirees that get involved in meaningful activities are more likely to experience healthier cognitive aging.

My research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health focuses on the benefits of what we call “civic engagement” and brain health. My colleagues and I have studied the impact of meaningful volunteer work as well as other social activities on the cognitive function of older adults. 

As background, the brain shrinks with normal aging, and people often become less active after retirement, which may help explain why people experience some loss of executive function as they grow older. However, after participating for two years in a meaningful volunteer program, we found the memory centers of our research participants had remained the same or improved somewhat. You and your father will be interested to know the latter was especially true for men in our research.

Now that you know what the research shows, how can your father apply it to his life? If his good health continues, I recommend your father search for an inspiring volunteer situation, or even a part-time job, if that’s more suitable to his personality. In order for the brain to reap the benefits of civic engagement, your father should search for a position that engages him:

  •   Intellectually – Tapping his extensive work experience.
  •   Socially – Working in teams and engaging with people of all ages.
  •   Physically – Staying or becoming more active by walking throughout the day. 

Thomas, my best to your father for a healthy, happy and successful retirement.