Our brains aren’t immune from the aging process. Most of us expect some forgetfulness along with creakier joints. But while memory gets most of the attention, aging also affects the mental ability known as executive function, reports the March 2010 issue of the Harvard Health Letter.
Executive function is an umbrella term for the complex thinking required to make choices, plan, initiate action, and inhibit impulses. Executive function may affect everything from walking speed (at least in the elderly) and attention span to friendships and family ties. As we age, executive function may be more important than many kinds of memory for the tasks needed to live independently.
The good news is that the do’s and don’ts of preserving executive function include many of the common precepts for staying healthy overall. The executive function to-do list includes exercise—older minds benefit enormously from busier bodies. High blood pressure harms both memory and executive function, and lack of sleep often scrambles executive function.
The Harvard Health Letter offers some tips for maintaining memory and executive function:
- Pay attention
- Remind yourself to focus. As you age, new information doesn’t get into your memory banks as easily as when you were young.
- Say it out loud. As you make a plan or put something away, saying it out loud encourages you to pause and pay attention to what you are doing.
- Make it a habit. Put keys and other personal items in the same place so you don’t have to use executive function to figure out where to find them.
- If you “go on automatic” for simple things, it may be easier to handle more complicated matters.
Habits can pay off!