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Keeping Your Smarts as You Age

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Nobody likes to spend too much time thinking about what doctors call age-related decline in brain function.

You can get really worried about the future of your brain until you meet someone like Chicago icon Studs Terkel. Studs is now 95, and although he readily acknowledges he’s as deaf as a post he remains virtually a walking encyclopedia of facts, poems, books he’s read, and details about the people he’s met and interviewed. It’s like he’s burned every minute of his entire life onto a CD and his brain can retrieve anything in seconds.

This gives me great hope.

Now, Studs doesn’t know any secret for his astonishing memory, and I seriously believe he thinks everybody has a memory like his. He doesn’t take a bevy of vitamins, but does eat reasonably well and has never been known to turn down a dry gin martini.

On the other hand, Studs is an intensely curious man. He’s read voraciously his entire life, sometimes for entertainment but mostly to expand his world. He listens to all types of music, has visited museums everywhere, and gives wonderful talks about his favorite films and artists. And, of course, as many Chicagoans know, he’s interviewed just about everyone in the arts and politics during his longtime radio program (old programs are heard every week on WFMT in Chicago).

Most important, I believe, is that he sits and simply thinks about what he has read, heard, and seen.

If you were reading this and expecting a list of supplements to take to be as smart as Studs, you’re out of luck. The most challenging part of preserving your brain is up to you. If your key intellectual effort is to watch Seinfeld reruns, and your main conversational topics are weather and crabgrass, believe me, the contribution from “smart supplements” will be minimal at best.

Here are a few suggestions to exercise your brain:
• Do the New York Times crossword puzzle at least three times a week. Look up words you don’t know. While you’re at it, read the New York Times.
• Take an adult education course in something challenging, like art history, classical music appreciation, or a new language.
• Visit museums when possible; if you live in a small community, get down to the library and start tackling the great literature of the world.
• Rent by mail the top fifty films ever made. This list is available online and the DVDs are at Netflix or www.facets.org.
• Read a poem a day and try to memorize at least one poem a week.
• Visit www.aldaily.com (Arts & Letters Daily), a wonderful link to hundreds of intellectually challenging articles from dozens of writers around the world.
• Start a journal that not only records events, but also your thoughts.

Am I giving you a headache? In our next health tip, I’ll provide a list of what to eat and the supplements to take to ward off age-related memory dysfunction.

And I agree: popping pills is easier than reading Shakespeare.

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