Keeping your mind sharp as you age

Shirley Weintraub, 87, found her passion for painting roughly three years ago. She paints as often as she can simply to keep her brain sharp.

"Oh my god, yes it's very important—you don't have to just sit in your room and feel sorry for yourself," Weintraub said. "If nothing else, you have to get out of that room and do a lot of things, which I do"

Experts say staying mentally alert underscores an important component of the aging process.

"A normal part of aging sometimes can be some deterioration of neurons in the brain and the most important aspect of keeping the mind sharp is actually just finding opportunities to build alternate pathways," said Dr. Zachary Palace, who specializes in geriatric medicine. "In other words, what we want is to develop is cognitive reserve from younger in life already."

Dancing and exercise are two more examples of those alternate pathways to keeping the brain fit. A seniors dance class meets weekly at Hebrew Home, a retirement community in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Members say that in addition to keeping them fit mentally and physically, another benefit of the classes is making new friendships.

The Alzheimer's Association says that someone in the United States develops Alzheimer's dementia every 66 seconds. Experts say staying mentally alert is a key factor in fighting degenerative brain diseases. Proper health and nutrition are others.

"You total all these things up along with sleep, meditation, the use of antioxidants and supplements—you can actually put a breaking system on how you're aging," said Oz Garcia, a Manhattan nutritionist. "You can hit your 50s, your 60s, your 70s, your 80s and be in remarkably good shape."

On average, Americans can now expect to live 78.6 years, according to data released by the National Center for Health Statistics. And doctors say by keeping our brains sharp we can go well beyond that.

"You got to get out and just be with the rest of the world. You don't give up when you're not well. If anything you fight it," Weintraub said. "You'll have a healthier brain than just sitting there and moping around. You have to keep busy no matter what age."