Staying Sharp in Retirement (Part 2)

Staying Sharp in Retirement (Part 2)


by Fran Parker

Fran new picNow eight months into retirement, I’m continuing to blog on the theme I started in November.  I’m using the book Staying Sharp, by Henry Emmons, MD and David Alter, Ph.D. as a guide to assessing how I’m doing with my goal of cultivating a healthy, active brain in retirement. The authors identify nine keys to having a youthful brain.  I’m scoring how well I’m doing in terms of each of the nine keys.

My last blog covered the first three keys, physical activity, adequate sleep, and good nutrition, which are the physical practices that support good brain health.  This blog will focus on the second three keys to a healthy brain.   Emmons and Alter describe these three characteristics as the “middle way of the mind.”  Curiosity, flexibility, and optimism are seen as a bridge between physical practices that promote good brain health and those that awaken our hearts and provide meaningful connections to others.

But before I tackle the second three keys and rate how I’m doing, I want to revisit the first three keys for a few minutes.  I just reread my blog from November and was struck by how hard I was on myself in grading my first five months of retirement.  I don’t think I deserved the C+’s I gave myself for good nutrition and physical activity.  I should have given myself a B for good nutrition and a B- for physical activity.  And, since I’m the one giving the scores, I’ve decided to change them! 


According to Staying Sharp, curiosity activates the brain’s reward centers, and is “a whole brain exercise that integrates the knowledge circuits of the left brain with the pattern-seeking circuits of the right brain.” Being exposed to things that are new, unpredictable, and uncertain stimulates growth and modifications in the neural pathways in our brains.

My grade: A-

I’ve always been innately curious.  Whether it be making last minute changes to recipes, spending hours at the computer “googling” various topics or learning about new programs over the course of my career, I practically always enjoy seeking and learning new information. 

Since I’ve retired, I’ve been exploring mixed media art.  It’s like play to me, trying new things without any fear of getting it “wrong” or making a mess.  It’s a joy to put paint and ink on paper and to be surprised with the results.   In the next few months, my curiosity will also be exercised through New Dimensions Program classes in art, gardening, geopolitics and film!


Common wisdom is that our minds become less flexible and more resistant to change as we age. Learned response patterns become automatic and unconscious. Cultural biases about aging can take over our thought patterns, which in turn can affect our daily functioning. In Staying Sharp, the authors state that we have the opportunity to re-engage and reinvent our lives in our later years.

Lack of flexibility has more to do with fear than it has to do with our capacity to change. By learning the skills of adaptive coping, we can program new responses into our brains that will help us be more flexible in our rapidly changing world.

My grade:  B+

As I explained in my introduction to my blog in July, my whole strategy for retirement living is evidence that my mindset about getting older changed over the past year. I’ve overcome most of my fears about getting old and am taking a proactive approach to creating the last third of my life. I entered this period excited and determined to do everything I can to maintain a healthy mind and body.

I have to work at being mindful of my thoughts and falling back into my old habits and thinking patterns.  This occasionally happens so I can’t quite give myself an A.


The sixth key to staying sharp as we age is optimism.  Optimism is what helps us persevere through setbacks and difficult situations.  It is closely related to trust and faith. Optimistic people are better able to handle stress and have stronger immune systems. 

According to Emmons and Alter, optimism is not hard-wired into our brain.  It is a skill that can be learned, even if some of us have more natural talent than others.  They offer some practices to help develop skills at being optimistic by strengthening our optimism filters: selective attention, address of control, and cause and effect.

My grade:  B-

It was hard for me to score myself on this key. In many respects, I appear to be a pessimist.  I can be a perfectionist and have a tendency toward depression, both of which are closely aligned with pessimism.  Sometimes I think I assume the worst to protect against disappointment when things don’t turn out as I want.

At the same time, I’ve always had a strong internal locus of control, which helps to mitigate pessimism.  I think my own actions and decisions make a difference in my experience of life. At my core, I really believe what we do as individuals matters. 

Emmons and Alter explain that optimism is increased when negative situations are attributed to unstable (one-time) rather than stable (ongoing) events and influences. Optimism is also more likely when we attribute events as local (defined as a single, identifiable cause unlikely to persist) rather than global (defined as an ever-present and inescapable cause).

My life has been largely free of stress and negativity, with the exception of a few unhappy job situations.  Now that I’m retired and have almost total control over how and with whom I spend my time, I’m much less likely to be in unpleasant and stressful situations that are ongoing or (seemingly) inescapable. I think I have it pretty easy now.  I can just feel my optimism growing every day! 

Life is good. I’m giving myself an A-, B+, and B- grades in curiosity, flexibility, and optimism.  Of course, this is all subjective, but I feel like I’m doing pretty well in cultivating a youthful brain. Another few months of retirement and I may be giving myself straight A’s.  

In my next blog, I’ll cover the last three keys to having a youthful brain – empathy, social connection, and living authentically.

P.S.  Like I said last time, retirement still receives an overall grade of A+!

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