The Globe Roundabout in Albufeira, Algarve, Portugal
An unexpected benefit of the expat life is that it helps keep your brain healthy. I have always heard that as we get older, doing things like puzzles, learning to dance, or learning a new language will help the brain make new connections, which helps keep brain function from declining and can even aid in reversing some of the decline. Well, it turns out doing the same puzzles over and over doesn’t help all that much; it just makes you really good at doing puzzles (sorry, Websudoku). But the expat life, at least here in Portugal, has some built-in brain boosters.
I don’t have a car here so I walk a lot more than I used to. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise has many health benefits, including a lower risk of Alzheimers. Thirty to sixty minutes of moderate activity a week will do the trick. You can walk, jog, dance, play a sport—anything that gets your heart rate up. (How many of you thought “sex” right then? Sure. Why not? We’re older, not dead!)
I try to take a walk every morning, shooting for 5,000 steps a day. If I start my day with 5,000 steps, I usually end with a total of 7,500 to 8,000. And if I go anywhere—to a market or exploring a town, I hit 10,000 steps easily. When I arrived in Portugal nine months ago, walking anywhere involved a lot of huffing and puffing. To be fair, I was in Albufeira and it is all hills. Four months later, my huffing and puffing was under control, though not entirely conquered. I then wisely moved to a flat area which allows me to walk farther and not die.
Studies also show that eating a Mediterranean diet helps prevent cognitive decline. All that olive oil is full of Omega fatty acids which decrease your risk of coronary artery disease and help you focus mentally. Portugal has close to 500 olive oil mills and exports over 130,000 tons of olive oil a year. (It’s the fifth largest exporter of olive oil in the world.) But olive oil loses a bit in the shipping and storing. The olive oil you find here is local, fresh, and world-class. The Alentejo region has established itself as the world leader in modernization and innovation in olive growing. Olive oil is used in everything, and you can feel your arteries slowly unclogging the more you eat. Okay, that last sentence might be an exaggeration.
Another tip to keep your brain healthy is to stay mentally active. As I noted in Every Day is a Navigation, you are constantly learning when you move to a new country. The grocery store is a maze—things are organized differently, you are translating labels with your phone app, you are seeing new foods and smelling new smells (cod is REALLY BIG here). You’ll end up backtracking through the aisles to find items so yay, more exercise. Learning a new language is a phenomenal, if frustrating, brain exercise. Some phrases you will pick up organically, other stuff you just have to buckle down and study. It’s all good.
Moving to a new place will have you trying new foods, meeting new people, experiencing new things. All of that keeps you on your toes mentally. Sometimes it’s frustrating; sometimes you just want the familiar. Some days you will retreat to your home and put on an American TV show or make yourself the best version of some comfort food that you can’t find in your new home. And that’s okay. Give your brain a rest. Give yourself a rest.
Moving abroad is not for everyone but for a lot of retirees, it allows them to live a more comfortable lifestyle than they might in the US. I don’t think anyone becomes an expat because it will help keep their brain chugging along, but it’s an extremely useful side benefit. The good news is you don’t have to pack up your entire life and move permanently. Think about spending a month or two in a different country just to experience a different way of life. Many airbnbs give a substantial discount when you rent for a month. You’ll have time to get a feel for the rhythm of the area, to experience everyday life, not just the tourist hot spots.
The Portuguese explored the world at a time when people feared falling off the edge. It’s a lot easier now. Try someplace new, if only for a little while. Your brain will thank you.