Memory builder: How putting together your own story helps

From memoir to scrapbooks, documenting your life story is an enriching creative process that has many profound benefits for you and for the people with whom you share it. The process involves memory, creativity and organization-all good for your brain. It also provides valuable insights on what you have accomplished in your life.

“Sometimes people think they haven’t done much,” says Erica Curtis, board-certified art therapist and instructor for the UCLA Arts and Healing Social Emotional Arts (SEA) certificate program. “But when they start to tell their stories, it puts experiences in perspective. It’s a very affirming process to look back and helps people find meaning and value in their lives.”

Telling your stories can also create closer relationships. The elderly aren’t always given respect for having lived a full life, says Curtis. This can be especially true in assisted living and long-term care facilities, where the relationship between caregiver and resident can be rather perfunctory and detached. Sharing life stories can create warmth and understanding.

How to kick-start your creative process

It can be rather intimidating to document an entire life. Instead, think about documenting particular times and special moments of your life. A good place to start is with questions your children or grandchildren ask you. These questions can also spark a starting point:

* What was your childhood like?

Describe a favorite game, or your neighborhood.

* What did you do as a teenager?

Share school experiences such as classes, sports you played.

* What kinds of pets did you have?

Describe names and adventures with your pet.

* How did your spouse propose marriage? Provide details on your honeymoon.

Some people choose to document their work life, creating a flow of interesting travels, projects and experiences related to their jobs; others may choose to tell about major events, such as emigrating to America. It really is up to you what and how much to tell.

“Some older adults have lost some control and choice in their lives,” explains Curtis, “and this helps them exercise choice in their world.”

Creating your story in words, pictures and other art forms

Memoir is a classic method by which to tell a life story. There are many books and online resources that can help you write your story. What it comes down to is telling your truth and providing details of what it was like to live at a particular time. The details matter and will add interest as well as context to those who read it. For example, the price of gas and type of car you had growing up, communications in the non-computer age and living through major historical events, such as the Great Depression.

Collages are another way to assemble a life story. Thumb through magazines and tear out images that inspire you. Once you have a pile, you can assemble them onto a sheet of paper, add your own photos, and memorabilia as well as drawings, doodles and captions. Make it fun and use what inspires you, be it glitter glue, gold stars or ribbons.

Other ways to document the events of your life can be through quilts, paintings, audio or video recordings. Search online for the year you were born, and look at the images. Chances are many memories will rush back into your mind. Our memories are very connected to images and images help our brains remember.

Be aware and ready for emotions

Documenting the events of your life is an emotional process. The reflections can bring up feelings of joy, regret and sadness. It’s normal, healthy and perfectly OK to have these feelings. If difficult emotions and unresolved matters linger, talk with a family member, friend or a health care professional.

“Pain in life is inevitable, but suffering is optional,” says Curtis. “Suffering occurs when we judge the emotion as bad or think we shouldn’t feel a particular way.”

Assembling the narrative of your life can also be a collaborative project done with a friend or loved one. Many community centers, including the UCLA arts and healing, offer memoir and collage classes. You can also work directly with an art therapist to glean greater insights on your life.

Consider strength training for longer life

According to recent UCLA research, maintaining muscle mass can reduce risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, and it may help you live longer, too.

The study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, led by Preethi Srikanthan, MD, assistant clinical professor in the endocrinology division at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, found that building muscle mass is important in decreasing metabolic risk.

“Greater muscle mass is associated with improved insulin resistance, which is at the root of both diabetes development and cardiovascular disease risk,” says Dr. Srikanthan. “We also found there was an association between the level of muscle mass and total mortality.”

Worry less about body weight; focus on building muscle

Everyone starts to lose a little muscle mass starting at about age 30. The loss can accelerate when you get older because people tend to be less active and at 65 years and older, muscle mass also declines at a faster rate. Sarcopenia is the medical term for severe skeletal muscle loss, which is typically associated with older adults. Preventing muscle loss through regular exercise helps guard against sarcopenia. But don’t worry if you’ve been sedentary for a while. You can increase your muscle mass at any age.

Even small changes in muscle strength can make a real difference in daily life especially in people who have lost muscle mass. A stronger body can make it easier to get up from a chair, climb stairs, carry groceries, open jars and play with your grandchildren.

Analyzing data from seniors reveals value of muscle mass

The researchers analyzed data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III, conducted between 1988 and 1994. They focused on a group of 3,659 individuals that included men who were 55 or older and women who were 65 or older at the time of the survey. The authors then determined how many of those individuals had died from natural causes based on a follow-up survey done in 2004.

Muscle mass of study subjects was measured using bioelectrical impedance, which runs an electrical current through the body. Muscle allows the current to pass more easily than fat does, due to muscle’s water content. This is how researchers could determine a muscle mass index–the amount of muscle relative to height–similar to a body mass index. They looked at how muscle mass index was related to longevity.

According to the researchers, the study does have some limitations. For instance, researchers point out that you cannot definitively establish a cause-and-effect relationship between muscle mass and survival using a cohort study such as NHANES III. “But we can say that muscle mass seems to be an important predictor of risk of death,” says Dr. Srikanthan.

To build muscle mass, you must fail in order to succeed

Muscles love a good challenge. They build by straining against a resistance. That resistance can be a your own body weight, such as with pushups, using hand weights or a flex band. What’s key is that you work your muscle to a failure point, meaning that you cannot lift it again. You know you’re at the proper resistance level if it’s difficult to lift the weight when you reach about the eighth repetition. If it’s easy to get to 10, then you need more resistance. Generally you should perform three sets of 8-10 repetitions with about a minute’s resting time between each set. By your last set, you should not be able to complete 10. In other words, you’ve failed to lift the weight and therefore you have reached the point where muscle will build more efficiently.

Strengthening core muscles is just as important as building up the muscles of your arms and legs. Core muscles include abdominal, hip and shoulder muscles. They wrap your torso like a corset. A stronger core can improve balance and reduce risk of falls and fractures.

An active 70-year-old can be biologically younger than an unfit, sedentary 50-year-old. Exercise vigorously at least three times per week and you should see some results within a month. Experiencing the energy of stronger muscles can revitalize your body, mind and spirit. That may be enough motivation to maintain a healthy muscle-building habit for life.