Stay mentally active.
Engage in regular challenging mental activity to help maintain brain cell health and stimulate communication among them. Challenging mental activity is commonplace for lawyers. In fact, I have joked with colleagues that the legal matter seemed easy so I must have missed something! The practice of law is challenging and seems to be ever evolving in its breadth and complexity. There are new clients to engage and learn their business or legal needs; new laws or regulations to read, digest, and apply; new cases to read to stay current in my areas of practice; new articles to write; new attorneys to train; new technology to master; new programs to plan; and the list continues. For me, one of the attractions to practicing law was the lifelong learning it offered. I found that to be true and have transitioned my practice areas multiple times in my career. I seek variety in my practice in order to stay engaged. So far, I have not been disappointed.
If you are no longer actively practicing law, then learning new skills, such as playing the guitar or painting, volunteering to help build houses with Habitat for Humanity, mentoring disadvantaged children or adults, reading a new genre of books, playing card games, assembling jigsaw puzzles, or pursuing other creative activities in which you have an interest will contribute to healthy cognitive functioning as we age. One of the articles suggests the best new activity is one that is challenging, complex, and requires constant practice.
Without question, the practice of law is stressful, and adding issues with cognitive ability into the mix compounds the stress. Learning ways that work for a lawyer to manage stress is important at all stages of a lawyer’s career. It does not start when the lawyer becomes a senior lawyer. If you are no longer actively practicing law, then you have removed a significant stress factor, but perhaps you have encountered new ones. There exists many readily available books, articles, and recommendations for managing stress that you can review and find what is best for your personal situation. To help manage stress related to cognition issues, select and practice the steps discussed in this article that you find work for you.
Regular exercise not only helps with stress management, something that is good for our brain in and of itself, but it also helps with other factors that can affect cognitive functioning, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, weight, and cardiovascular issues. Physical activity also helps us sleep better and reduces risks of depression and anxiety. The type of exercise can vary depending upon your physical health and consulting your physician before undertaking a new exercise regimen is a standard recommendation for those who have underlying health issues or have not previously exercised regularly. The key is to get moving or keep moving and if it happens to involve learning a new skill, like pickleball or swimming, there is a mental challenge component that helps improve brain functioning too The brain needs to be challenged repetitively by complex activity that requires it to work.
Sleep enables the brain to “reboot,” that is to consolidate and store memories effectively. The best sleep is 7-8 consecutive hours as opposed to 2-3 hour intervals. However, the amount of sleep needed varies with age. You may need to consult your healthcare team to rule out sleep apnea or other potential causes for sleep interferences.
Pay attention to your diet. Eating the right foods such as those in a Mediterranean style diet of fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils (i.e., olive oil), and plant sources of protein not only helps your physical health but also helps improve your brain health.
Social connections are important to stimulate your brain. According to the NIA article, “…People who engage in personally meaningful and productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose…” One way to stay connected is by volunteering to serve on an ABA Senior Lawyers Division committee that is tasked with something meaningful to you. There are numerous opportunities to serve nonprofit organizations and mentoring programs serving the needs of others and as lawyers, we have developed valuable skill sets to contribute.
As we age, the risk of falls tends to increase, and our balance may not be as good as before. It is important to protect against physical injury to our brains. If you are experiencing balance issues or have issues with falls, consult your physician or healthcare team to determine the cause and then develop and follow a care plan with them. In addition, there are programs available to help you with these issues. For example, in my community, the YMCA offers a program specifically designed for adults age 55 and older that includes strength building, yoga, water exercise, low impact aerobics, and other balance related exercises.
Stop tobacco use.
If you smoke or chew, stop. Tobacco use has been shown to have numerous detrimental physical health effects, some of which can impact brain health. For help quitting, you can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or access the CDC Quitting Smoking resources at www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/quit-smoking.
Alcohol in moderation.
If you consume alcohol, do so in moderation. Alcohol abuse has been shown to cause depression and may be linked to dementia. If you are addicted, seek help. The ABA maintains a directory of lawyer assistance programs by state which you can access here: www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/lap_programs_by_state. These programs provide confidential assistance to judges, lawyers, and law students with substance use disorders and other mental health issues.
While we cannot completely eliminate the effects of aging on our cognitive health, we can take steps to reduce its impact.