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AARP spelling bee winner highlights importance of active aging

August 16, 2012

Staying mentally sharp is important to many older adults, and few have done so better than Michael Petrina. The 67-year-old retired attorney recently captured his second AARP National Spelling Bee title, CNN reports.

Petrina bested more than 50 contestants (all over 50) and correctly spelled the final word, Rhizoctonia, to win the crown. He is no stranger to the bee, however. Along with winning in 2009, he placed second in 2008 and 2011.

Anybody looking to keep their mind active in retirement should take a few cues from how Petrina prepared for this year's competition. In the weeks and months leading up to the spelling bee, he went over 20,000 different words he had written on note cards. He also places an emphasis on mentally stimulating activities, whether in the form of crossword puzzles or reading.

"We can take that as a lesson, that we as human beings need to be in an enriched environment," Dr. Gregory Jicha told CNN. "In the face of the fact that we're losing nerve cells every day, we need to keep making these new connections."

But it's not just mental activity that has helped Petrina stay sharp. He also exercises regularly, something which can supplement continuing education as part of a healthy lifestyle for seniors. Aside from the usual benefits of exercise including improved heart health, strengthening bones and muscles and helping maintain a healthy weight, research has shown there are also mental benefits.

Some of the most compelling evidence comes from a recent study that looked at whether exercise could have an impact on the accumulation of amyloid plaque (a risk factor Alzheimer's) in women who were more genetically disposed to it. According to The New York Times, women who walked or jogged at least 30 minutes five times a week had about the same risk as people without the genetic inclination.

"There are so many benefits to exercise," Dr. Denise Head, an associate professor of psychology, told the Times. "And one may be that it helps the brain."

Petrina's anecdotal evidence, combined with a growing amount of research, suggest that the best way to maintain brain health later in life is to find engagement in any way possible. Whether it's traveling, heading back to the classroom or finding a new hobby, remaining engaged is the key to staying mentally active.