In line with my obsession with health, I’m super interested in everything we can do to keep our brains healthy and nimble for many, many years to come. It’s why I include keeping your mind active as one of the top priorities in the Ten Questions to Retire Early. And it’s why I’ve written about staying current on technology in retirement, to avoid getting old too fast, even after we unplug from work, which is how many of us interact with new technology these days.
It’s long been well known that we keep the neural pathways we use, but lose the ones we neglect, and that effect only magnifies with age. But I recently learned something even more terrifying: not only do we lose that pathways, but our brains actually shrink with age, and they shrink faster the less we use them.
There are other factors that affect brain health, of course, like healthy diet and exercise, and overall cardiovascular health. But how we use our brains can have a big impact on whether they shrink slowly — or shrink quickly.
According to this study:
Protective factors that reduce cardiovascular risk, namely regular exercise, a healthy diet, and low to moderate alcohol intake, seem to aid the ageing brain as does increased cognitive effort in the form of education or occupational attainment. A healthy life both physically and mentally may be the best defense against the changes of an ageing brain. [emphasis mine]
Meaning: If we want our brains to stay clear and crisp, we need to prioritize continuing to use them on challenging tasks every day of our lives, and avoid letting ourselves get mentally soft.
As always with health matters, we can’t control everything, but we can do our very best to increase our own odds.
Brain Health Has to Be On Our Minds
So for those of us considering or already embarked on early retirement, we need to prioritize this even more than other people do, because we’re willingly stepping away from the greatest source of not only mental and cognitive stimulation, but also of mental challenges that we might prefer not to have to deal with.
Those stubborn work challenges that make us want to hurry up and retire already are in fact doing us a huge cognitive favor by forcing us to think through problems we wouldn’t choose to take on on our own, and maintain our cognitive function. (So the next time work is annoying, remember that at least you’re maintaining your gray matter. Wohoo!)
If left to our own devices, we’re much more likely to avoid taking on hard problems that don’t interest us, and we’re much more likely to spend our time on familiar tasks, or worse, to spend a lot of time going down internet rabbit holes. (Which is terrifying because research out of China shows that heavy internet usage shrinks and restructures the brain even faster, even in young people. :::shudder:::)
Add to all of that the fact that many of us pursuing early retirement are banking on being able to live DIY-heavy lives for many years, and there’s a lot at stake. Not just our own quality of life, which is about a big as factor as there would be, but also being able to make our finances work long term by insourcing our own care and labor instead of requiring the help of others.
So we need to keep challenging ourselves. Not rocket science, right? Except:
Enter the modern world.
Today’s World Is Conspiring to Make Us Mentally Soft
I’m not talking actual conspiracy here, but more that many smart people have figured out that there are bucketloads of money to be made from making our lives ever more convenient. The very concept of the smartphone has changed our lives immeasurably, and made thousands of once-laborious tasks instantaneous. Our cars get smarter all the time and now do far more than get us from point A to point B. And there are an endless array of home automation products that do all kinds of tasks around the house.
The goal of all of these products and services is to make us reliant on them. To not be able to imagine our lives without them. To fool ourselves into thinking that they are needs, not wants. To forget how to do the tasks we once did on our own, so that we have no choice but to continue pumping money to the companies slinging them.
Our lives undoubtedly move faster than we are equipped to handle. It is no wonder that we’ll take help in any form, especially if it’s wrapped up with the veneer of cool. Especially for those who are struggling to make ends meet, who have even less time than the rest of us, the yearning for convenience in as many areas of life is completely understandable. There’s only one problem:
Convenience Is the Enemy of Brain Size
Every one of these tasks that we once did but now rely on either a piece of technology or a convenience service or product to do for us is a way in which we are making ourselves soft. Not just metaphorically, but in terms of actual brain size and actual cognitive function. Every challenge, every obstacle we remove is like pressing the accelerator toward cognitive decline, dementia, memory loss, movement disorders and all the other bad mental stuff you can think of.
We all have to find the right balance of convenience vs. effort, and it’s important to acknowledge that some people could not survive economically or even physically without some help from conveniences. This is not an attempt to shame them, and instead I’d urge all of us to exercise as much empathy as possible when we see someone else making a convenient choice instead of a self-reliant or money-saving-but-more-time-consuming choice. Some people just don’t have that time, or are too overwhelmed by other things to learn the skills they might need for the DIY approach.
But assuming we have enough time in our lives to make some of these choices, it becomes a lot easier to turn down the convenient option, even if there’s no price difference, or even if the more convenient option is cheaper, if we know what we’re giving up by making that choice — long-term brain health and mental function.
The Problem With the Cooking Box
Recently, a young colleague at work told me that he has started using Blue Apron for dinner three days a week. I nearly jumped out of my chair, and not only because he earns an entry level salary, and the price-per-meal of those home delivery boxes is way higher than if you just shop for the ingredients yourself. (And never mind the amount of packaging and waste that comes with them, which should make any remotely environmentally-minded person feel ill.)
My first thought was: But you’re missing the opportunity to learn about cooking by exploring recipes yourself, and to learn about food by shopping for produce yourself.
I’ve heard the argument that folks who use those cooking box services enjoy getting exposed to new foods they wouldn’t have otherwise tried, and I can see the value in that. But there’s another way to get that same benefit: try new foods. Like actually make an effort to learn about different fruits and vegetables and spices, research recipes they show up in, and then learn to make those recipes. It’s waaaaaay less easy than throwing some pre-chopped ingredients into a pan (and then throwing away the loads of trash they came wrapped in), but that’s the whole point.
If you’re at a point of overwhelm in life and using those cooking boxes is the only way you can get a fresh, healthy dinner on the table for yourself or your family, then hey, you have my total support and empathy, because you probably have plenty of other challenges on your plate that are keeping your brain active and nimble. I have had plenty of work days when all I wanted in the world was for someone to make it easy for me to eat a healthy dinner, and I totally get that feeling of being so grateful for any help you can get. But those who use the services just to experience new yummy foods without having to put in the effort are missing out on a major opportunity for learning and brain maintenance.
The Problem with Those Personal Digital Assistants
Would you still buy a personal home assistant device and call out to “her” by name if you knew that every time you did, your brain shrank a bit? Yeah, me neither.
While there’s no research to suggest that actual thing happens on a per-usage basis, we do know that the whole point of this piece of technology sitting in your home and listening to you, awaiting your commands, is to make it as easy as possible for you to rely entirely on it. That’s how it can sell you more products (because it’s so easy, and those things make life even easier!).
Our species name, homo sapiens, means “wise man” in Latin, which many interpret as “thinking man” (or let’s go with “thinking person”). But more and more, we’re letting ourselves become “technology-reliant person.” In the past, if we wanted to know the answer to a question, we had to reason it out, or maybe go to the library and look it up. And to look it up in a book, we had to ask other questions first, to figure out where we should even look for the answer. Now we just ask Google, and we know the answer in under three seconds. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, because I’m intractably curious, but I know that every time I ask Google a question instead of trying to remember it myself, reason it out or look it up the old-fashioned way, I’m robbing myself of an opportunity to keep my brain big and healthy.
So while it may not seem like any big thing to ask the little digital hockey puck to tell you how traffic is looking, or to close the garage door for you, those are now things you haven’t done yourself, and especially with the garage door, you’ve now been able to stay seated instead of getting up and doing a task, and oh yeah, sitting is also deadly. And with things you might ask it that involve actual thinking, if you have this friendly, helpful little toy at your disposal at all times, it gets even easier over time to think less for yourself, and to let it think more and more for you.
I still stand by my assertion that it’s important to stay current on new technology, so we don’t wake up one day and find ourselves socially or technologically isolated, or afraid of learning new things. But, if we can learn to ask the question of whether a particular new piece of technology is something that will expand our interaction with the real world or shrink it, we’ll have the answer we need on whether that thing is something to add to our lives.
(And, I’m not gonna lie here — maybe I overlearned the lesson of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I’m not especially keen on putting machines in charge of the functions of our home, or even to give them permission to listen to us at all times. Remember Hal, and how we took over the ship? I’m not inclined to find out if that could ever cross over from science fiction to science reality.)
Finding the Right Balance
Like with everything, we have to find our own balance. Not getting so focused on saving money that we don’t enjoy our lives en route to our big goal. Not getting so focused on health that we won’t let ourselves enjoy our own birthday cake. (Mmmmm, cake.) Not getting so focused on doing everything ourselves that we drive ourselves crazy and spend all our free time on chores. But viewing each new convenience that arrives in front of us as a trade-off, and possibly a big one at that. As something we could grow reliant on, that could make us softer mentally or physically, and that could even accelerate the shrinking of our brains.
So with all of that said, what feels like the right balance for you? What are conveniences that have been worthwhile additions to your life, that have allowed you to focus your energy on tasks that are essential to your well being or important to you? And what are the conveniences you eschew for any number of potential reasons? Any of those new conveniences that you find super tempting, but that you now find yourself wanting to resist when you think about them shrinking your brain? Let’s discuss all of it in the comments!
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