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Staying Healthy for Retirement

Taking care of your brain is just as important as taking care of your portfolio. Here's how keep your mind young enough to enjoy retirement.

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Just as you should prudently grow your financial nest egg, you must also invest in your health to ensure a secure retirement. Fidelity Investments estimates that a couple who are 65 and retiring today will need $200,000 to cover medical costs in retirement if they do not have employer-sponsored retiree healthcare-and that doesn't even include over-the-counter medications and long-term care. So, investing in your health is just as important for your bottom line as investing in your 401(k).

Arguably, the organ most in need of a solid long-term investment is your brain. And you can take specific steps to help your brain age well. According to Gene D. Cohen, a physician and Ph.D. who is the director of George Washington University's Center of Aging, certain activities can help increase the power, clarity, and subtlety of the brain and the mind. "Engaging in any of them is for your brain what going to the gym is for your body-a healthy workout that releases and expands our mental potential," says Cohen, author of the recent book The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain.

Exercise your brain. Like every other part of your body, you brain needs regular exercise to stay healthy. Experience can modify brain structure at every stage of life. Challenging activities can cause new brain cells to grow or make existing brain cells form new connections, which helps the brain to function better. "Choose something appealing and challenging-something you'll have to work at," Cohen says. "Just as with physical exercise, you want to work up a mental sweat." A 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the most effective activities for preventing cognitive decline are dancing, playing board games, playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, and reading, in that order. The more frequently you participate in these activities, the greater the benefits to your health. Knitting, doing odd jobs, gardening, and traveling have also been found to reduce the risk of dementia.

Stay socially active. Having networks of family and friends is associated with better mental and physical health and lower death rates. But staying active doesn't have to imply a full social gantlet. Sitting down to a nice meal accompanied by several companions and a stimulating discussion while music plays in the background just might be the ticket to better brain health, according to clinical neurophysiologist Paul Nussbaum. "Just having one family meal per day is like a prescription for the brain," he says. Leisure activities that combine physical, mental, and social elements may be most likely to prevent dementia, according to research presented at the Alzheimer's Association Ninth International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders. The Alzheimer's Association's "Maintain Your Brain" campaign recommends that you be social by conversing, volunteering, joining a club, or taking a class.

Manage stress. Chronic stress damages your immune system and makes your body less able to fight disease. It also releases hormones that can be beneficial in the short term but damage your brain if they are constantly present. So take a deep breath, relax, and find some permanent ways to simplify your life. You can further boost your immune system and your mental health by becoming good at something. "Older persons who pursue activities in which they experience a sense of control and mastery are healthier both physically and mentally than those who do not," Cohen says. His ideas for possible activities: Play a musical instrument, take up embroidery, become computer literate, or learn a new language.

Maintain overall body health. Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. Squeeze exercise into your day. Even short bursts like taking the stairs and parking farther away from your destination can help, but at least 30 minutes of exercise per day is preferable. Even walking every day reduces the incidence of dementia, says Nussbaum. He recommends wearing a pedometer throughout your day and trying to take at least 10,000 steps each day. Moderate alcohol consumption may prevent memory loss, but that's not a reason to start drinking if you don't already. The Mayo Clinic defines moderate drinking as one drink a day for women and everyone over age 65 and two drinks for men under age 65. Also, don't smoke. Memory loss is only one example of a long list of health problems that accompany smoking.

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