When we think of retirement, most people picture a life of ease: sipping cocktails by a beach, playing with grand-kids, or finally getting a chance to relax on the couch and catch up on your Netflix time. All of these activities can be great fun, but where’s the challenge?

For years, scientists have seen a link between engaging in enjoyable activities and maintaining a healthy brain. But could merely engaging in enjoyable activities be enough?

In a new study featured in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, researchers have found that the brain works best when it’s challenged. The study followed two groups of seniors: One group was assigned to socialize for 15 hours a week, engaging their peers, but learning no new skills. The other group was taught skills on a digital camera for 14 hours a week, taking on progressively more complex assignments. Scientists found that the group who spent their time actively learning new and challenging skills did better on cognitive tests.

Researchers are drawing links between strong neural pathways in the brain and cognitive challenges. This means that while chatting with friends might make you feel young, learning Russian could keep your brain young.

How do you challenge your brain? Scientists are still trying to determine what parts of learning preserve neural pathways, but they believe that increasingly difficult tasks are the best way to keep your brain healthy. Objectives like learning a language, developing a new craft, or memorizing a dance routine are good ways to engage your brain in active learning. Consider perusing the brochures for community college classes near you or check neighborhood bulletin boards to help you find an interest that will allow you to challenge your brain.

Whether you’re hoping to stave off memory loss or just want to spend retirement discovering all the things you didn’t have time for while you worked, the point is this: Learning isn’t always easy, but hard-won lessons impart precious knowledge as well as promote a healthy brain.  

Close your eyes and imagine someone who is “old.” What images does this word conjure up?  Do you see frailty, sadness, or people with memory loss? For most Americans these are the images they see. But why?

Getting older isn’t the end of one’s life; it’s a chance to embrace more of life. Aging should be seen as a grand adventure, not a slow march toward death.

Geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas believes our attitudes toward aging exacerbate some of the problems the senior community faces. He sees seniors as entering a new phase of life, something he calls “post-adulthood.” Thomas argues that the senior years can be vital years of self-discovery and adventure, given the chance.

But embracing your age also means that aging Americans have to stop chasing their youth.

‘You’re as young as you feel, and I feel like I’m 22 years old.’ That’s not good, that’s not right ... and the reason it’s wrong is it doesn’t allow you to be who you are,” Thomas explained to TheWashington Post. Instead of seniors pretending to be in their 20s, Thomas wants seniors to embrace their true age with the same energy and enthusiasm that would be expected of a 22-year-old.

Thomas points out that believing old age is a bad thing can lead to dementia, depression, and other maladies. The key to aging, in his mind, isn’t denying what’s happening, but refusing to view age as a burden. There are 80-year-olds who run marathons. There are 90-year-old grandmothers who make Christmas dinner each year.

Another culprit of the negative aging stigma are the very institutions we use to offer assistance to seniors. According to Thomas, American nursing homes are regimented against seniors, making them feel useless, and are designed for the convenience of the staff, not the benefit of the patients.

Whether you’re running marathons at 80 or need a little help with mobility, aging is nothing to be ashamed of. By embracing our age and celebrating seniors, we help build a stronger, happier elderly community.

Winter can be a bit of a downer.

Snow, ice, unsafe driving conditions, bitter cold—all of these factors can make winter seem depressing. But winter blues are more than just a passing notion; each year some people get SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a clinically diagnosable form of depression that can result in overeating, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in daily activities. Scientists theorize that SAD is brought on not only by the drop in temperature, but the reduced amount of daylight. In essence, our bodies respond to the change in season by slowing us down physically and emotionally.

For seniors, SAD can be especially debilitating. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that more than 6.5 million Americans over the age of 55 experience depression. To make sure that seniors are not suffering from SAD, caregivers and loved ones should keep an eye out for crucial signs. If seniors seem to have lost interest in activities they typically enjoy, isolate themselves from friends and family, or spend inordinate amounts of time sleeping, caregivers should consider intervention.

Unlike for many forms of depression, for SAD there is a simple, non-pharmaceutically based treatment: the sun. Exposing SAD sufferers to sunlight can help energize and cheer most patients. If you suspect a senior is suffering from SAD, bright, sunny areas of the home are the best way to elevate their mood without the use of chemicals. Light box therapy is another effective option—filling a room with artificial sunlight to help minimize the effects of SAD. Sunlight therapy lamps, which are inexpensive, might also be an intelligent addition to your home décor. Even those who aren’t suffering from full-blown SAD will get a natural boost from the simulated sunlight.

Whether you’re worried about a senior who seems down or trying to cope with the effects of the season yourself, no one has to be SAD. Stay mindful of the signs, and seek help if any SAD symptoms present to eliminate this highly treatable form of depression.

Travel isn’t for the young. You don’t need to be in your 20s to discover the world. As we age, learning new things and exploring new places can actually help our brains stay vital.

Unfortunately, there’s a stigma surrounding traveling with seniors.

Many people caring for seniors feel that travel isn’t an option, not considering the option of traveling with their aging loved one or partner. With a little bit of planning, seniors can experience new and wonderful corners of the world together, with their caregivers.

There are three essential steps to traveling with a senior:

  1. Know Limitations. Does your grandmother run marathons or barely get off the couch? Every senior can travel, but knowing the kind of vacation to prepare for is essential. Choose destinations that won’t over exert older travelers beyond their physical limitations, and offer places along the way to sit and relax. If you’re planning a trip that involves strenuous activities or lots of walking, it is best to have any senior travelers get a full health check beforehand.
  2. Plan. Traveling with seniors requires a bit of extra planning. Make sure that medications and essential items are available, even while on the road. Most airlines, trains, and bus companies will work with customers to safely store and provide access to temperature-sensitive medications. If your senior has a mobility issue, like a walker or wheelchair, plan for extra time in security lines, and do your homework regarding the accessibility of any hotels and venues you will be visiting.
  3. Research. Some destinations are naturally senior-friendly. Take a look through a list of destinations that cater to older visitors with your loved one, and choose a trip that you can both enjoy. Also be sure to look for senior discounts that can help make travel easier on your wallet as well.

Whether you want to explore great landmarks, visit museums, or take in some shows, traveling doesn’t have to be an adventure limited to the young.. There is no limit to the possibilities for you or your loved ones as they age, with a little planning; enjoy the chance to explore the world.