This month’s expert is Michelle Carlson, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Carlson also is an issue expert for the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), which is organized by AARP.
Dear Dr. Carlson,
I just retired from an interesting career that kept me active and engaged for 40 years. How can I keep my brain as challenged as it was when I was working? Do I need to be concerned about losing what I’m no longer using?
With your energetic attitude, you no doubt will never truly “retire.” Staying active and involved in pursuits you find intellectually challenging will ensure retirement is another interesting phase of your life.
However, your question regarding the importance of keeping your brain active is significant. The brain is like a muscle in that way. It responds best to exercise that both has a purpose and is meaningful. The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) – a group I’m involved with – calls this purposeful social engagement.
What is purposeful social engagement? It’s how you maintain mental fitness. I describe it as doing meaningful work that you enjoy – volunteering at a hospital, answering a hotline, teaching children to read, for example – and sharing it with others who also benefit. Add to the mix your close social network and, according to research, your brain will respond with higher levels of reasoning and other cognitive functions.
As you plan your life after a four-decade career, here are a few recommendations I hope will help you transition to new opportunities and challenges in life and retain a robust, healthy brain:
Focus on the relationships and social activities you enjoy most – If your career involved lots of people contact, consider volunteer work that gives you opportunities to engage with people. Volunteering at art museum, getting involved in your church or synagogue, or serving on the board of an organization with a mission you support. All of these activities could be both intellectually satisfying and socially engaging.
Keep a circle of friends, family or neighbors with whom you can exchange ideas, thoughts and concerns – Recently, I met a retiree who told me he meets with a group of friends – some longtime and some new – each Monday for a potluck. They begin every meal by going around the table to share something—good news, an anecdote or even a joke. This is an excellent example of a solid social network.
Maintain social connections with people of different ages – This is especially important if you intend to move to a retirement community, which can be excellent places to meet people and stay socially engaged. However, it’s also good to search out contact with younger people, perhaps by volunteering at a local school or community center. If you have grandchildren, block out special time to spend with them. Everyone will benefit from this connection.
Try something new or meet someone new – Now that you’re retired, think about activities you wanted to try but didn’t have the time to take on. Next, consider how you can engage with others through those activities. Join a mountain biking group, book club or cooking class—the possibilities are endless.
John, my best to you in this new chapter in your life. With your exceptional attitude, I’m sure you will find meaningful retirement “work” and maintain valuable social networks.