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Keeping the aging mind active and sharp


Keeping the mind healthy and sharp becomes even more important as we get older. But it may be a challenge for seniors to find the right way to do it. Brent Fox speaks with the director of the New York Office for the Aging, Greg Olsen.

BF: So what does it mean when we say mental sharpness or acuity?

GO: From our lens, it's being actively engaged with your mind. When you are not that way, that's when you have bad results, depression, suicidal ideation, isolation, loneliness. Staying engaged, both mentally and physically have been proven in study after study that will help you live longer. Having hope and a reason to get up in the morning is really important to everybody, regardless of age.

BF: And why do you feel it's important, especially for seniors and older people that they keep their mind sharp?

GO: When you stay actively engaged, both physically and mentally, you do better. The data suggest when you are not mentally active or you are isolated, it costs a lot of money. And you have really, really bad health outcomes that rival things like osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity. It costs Medicare almost $7 billion a year to provide medical services to somebody who's isolated, it's the equivalent of smoking, almost a pack of cigarettes a day.

And it's great that the surgeon general just came out with data that we've been using since 2018, that really showed these impacts. So it's incumbent upon us to use old school techniques to connect people, but also use technology because older adults use technology.

BF: So what kinds of activities can older people do to keep their minds active?

GO: Well, there's a variety of things, I mean, just getting together with people. So whether that be a library or a senior center or some other community outlet where you can engage and you can talk and you can share. We're very social beings.

So, again, we're talking about older adults, but this is true for all of us. If that's not an option, or there's other options that people are interested in.

We have launched a variety of technological solutions that do exactly that. They keep you engaged mentally to do brain games, connect with families, connect with friends, lifelong learning opportunities, literally with people all over the world.


BF: Does senior isolation, do you think contribute to waning mental stability?

GO: There's no question. Again, the data shows that people who are isolated, people who are lonely, people that don't have that social connectedness that we need as human beings, they die earlier. They have much more at risk of actually getting dementia.

I mean, one of the two easiest ways to reduce your risk of dementia is diet, exercise, controlling your blood pressure and staying socially engaged. So yeah, the data is crystal clear, which is why it's really a public health issue that we address this.

There's two other countries, the United Kingdom and Japan, that actually have an ambassador of loneliness to really work with communities and systems to connect people, whether they be peer or intergenerational, which is equally as important.

BF: And I know this is not always an option for people, like I know people who live in senior communities, there's a lot of things they can do together. But how do people who don't live in senior communities, how do they meet other people?

GO: Well, you can do that through some of the platforms. But our network again, we have over 800 congregate senior nutrition sites that offer a variety of programming. A lot of times there's transportation to those projects. There is community activities going on all the time, you could join a Kiwanis group, you can volunteer, people are going back to work, because a lot of your social support systems and friendships come from work.

So again, there's old school ways where you know, neighbors can check in on neighbors, you have somebody who's older in your life, give them a call once a week or go over and visit. So those are the old school easy things. Sometimes you really don't have to overthink it. But there's other ways to get out to the community and things that the community has organized, whether it be for older adults, or just generally.

And then there's a lot of technological solutions that can make those connections, initial connections or strengthen connections.


BF: Can you tell me a bit about how people can use one of these online platforms?

GO: Anybody who's over the age of 50 can access GetSetUp. So right now this platform is 4.6 million people in 160 countries. We launched our partnership with them about two years ago. We have almost 170,000 users that have taken almost 600,000 classes, and that is free that we subsidize for anybody over the age of 50 in a whole variety of categories from exercise to wellness to learning tech.

Or you could go to a national park, you could, go through a museum, learn photography, learn cooking. So you can find that on our homepage. That's aging.ny.gov. Anybody over the age of 50 can use it.

And if somebody is over the age of 50, and has a skill that they want to teach to somebody else, they can actually get on teach that course. All the instructors are over the age of 50. So it's very peer-support oriented, and they can actually get paid for what they're doing.

BF: I've been talking with Greg Olsen, the director for the New York Office for the Aging. Greg it has been great to have you on.

GO: Brent, we really appreciate it. This is a really important topic and want to thank you for recognizing that and asking us on to highlight this.