As children, many of us kept diaries. As adults, these youthful, soul-baring entries may have evolved into introspective chronicles called journals. And thanks to bestselling books such as The Artist’s Way, millions of people start their day with “Morning Pages,” a form of stream of consciousness writing meant to open one’s creativity and serve as a path to self-growth.
But can journaling boost senior brain health? Researchers say yes.
You’ll be in illustrious company: esteemed figures such as Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, Ernest Hemingway, and John D. Rockefeller all kept journals. Who knows: some of their brilliant ideas may have originated as journal entries, much as today’s startup founders often outline their business ideas on cocktail napkins.
How Writing and Basketball Improve Memory
Neuroscientists tracked the brain activity of both seasoned and novice writers as they sat to create a work of fiction, and discovered that the inner workings of professional writers’ brains behaved similarly to those trained in other complex mental activities, such as music and sports.
What researchers gleaned from this study can help seniors who journal regularly keep their brains in good shape. When you’re “in the flow” with your writing, your brain is:
- Thinking of ways to describe situations, people, and events
- Focusing on a single task without distraction
- Recalling descriptive words — especially those you likely don’t use in daily conversation
- Connecting present and past as you tell a story
- Increasing dexterity so you write legibly.
Just as athletes grow stronger the more they practice — and just as older adults build strong backs, knees, hips, and joints with appropriate exercise— journaling is an excellent “workout” for your gray matter.
Easing Stress, Confronting Fears
Journaling is also a boon for seniors’ mental health. Because chronic anxiety and depression can lead to cognitive decline, giving voice to emotions and problems can help defuse their power and allow you to regain control of your mental well being.
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, journaling helps improve your mood by:
- Providing a safe, private place to share your concerns
- Identifying stressors, such as negative thoughts and behaviors
- Prioritizing fears and problems
- Tracking symptoms such as stress and anxiety
To get the greatest benefit from journaling, researchers recommend that you:
- Make journaling a habit. Starting to journal is like starting to meditate: ideally, an activity you do every day, so you get into a regular flow with writing, reaching for your journal whenever something comes to mind that you want to express.
- Keep pen and paper handy to record a thought or idea when it occurs to you. In our digital age, a smartphone or tablet will work as well. Or, you can buy a beautiful blank book designed for journaling, and a pen that feels comfortable in your hand. Having the right tools makes any project more enjoyable.
- Write without self-censoring. It’s your personal journal; no one else need ever read your musings unless you choose to share them. Write whatever you wish, and don’t be concerned with spelling or grammar!
- Use a variety of media. Journaling doesn’t have to mean just words. Edison’s and da Vinci’s journal entries were replete with drawings. Maybe one day you’ll have a desire to sketch something in your book, or tape in a photo. Any medium that allows you to express yourself is fair game.
Helping the Muse Along
What if you want to journal, but have no idea what to write about? Take your cue from one or more of these prompts, and then see where it takes you:
- What would you tell your teenage self? Your 30-year-old self?
- What would you like to tell your future self?
- Do you have any regrets?
- How has your life experience differed from what you envisioned on the cusp of adulthood?
- What did you learn from your biggest mistakes?
- What is the best advice you ever received?
- List 21 things that make you smile.
- What’s your favorite book/movie/song? Why?
- What places have you most enjoyed visiting?
- Do you like your name? Have you ever changed it, other than for marriage?
- Describe your favorite time of year: the scents, the weather, the activities…
Of course, as researchers continually remind us, a healthy lifestyle needs to be a well-rounded commitment. While journaling can play a significant role, to get the full benefit of managing stress, anxiety, and concerns, it’s also essential to:
- Learn to relax. Here at The Kensington, we know that some of the most promising therapies for memory loss have to do with minimizing stress and generating emotional well being. Meditation, pet therapy, music therapy, art therapy, and more, can all help bring peace and balance to a senior’s life.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Our Executive Chef, Norm Fintz, bring a lifetime of culinary knowledge and expertise in fine dining and catering to The Kensington table. His creative meals are flavorful, nutritious, and beautifully presented. We invite our residents’ family members and friends to come eat with us as often as they’d like.
- Exercise regularly. Daily exercise isn’t just good for your body — it’s incredibly beneficial for brain health as well. Harvard researchers found regular daily exercise provides the following benefits for seniors:
- Reduces heart attack risk
- Lowers blood pressure
- Strengthens bones
- Protects joints
- Improves mood
- Defends against infection
- Improves sleep
- Increases lifespan
- Get a good night’s sleep. Speaking of sleep: scientists have recently identified the glymphatic system, which cleans our brains of the proteins that cause Alzheimer’s while we’re asleep. So getting a good night’s sleep is an excellent form of brain protection. Combined with exercise, relaxation, and good nutrition, you’re on the road to better cognitive health.
At The Kensington White Plains, we encourage our residents to express themselves in whatever ways they feel most comfortable — and we also encourage you to stretch beyond your comfort zone. Come visit us soon, and discover why The Kensington is a senior living community to write home about.