Mental Activities To Improve Brain Health
September 1, 2020Retirement Health
One of our greatest treasures may very well be the one sitting inside our skulls: the human brain. Smarter than the smartest supercomputer, with a 100 billion neurons that continue forming into adulthood and 100,000 miles of blood vessels, the brain is the most complex and intricate organ at the helm of a myriad of functions: body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and breathing; sensations and information processing; physical movements; and dreaming, reasoning, thinking, and feeling.
As the body ages, the brain shrinks: the frontal lobe and hippocampus, responsible for higher cognitive function and the formation of new memories, shrink around age 60 or 70. Diminishing nerve tracts, synaptic connections, blood flow, myelin, and chemical messengers lead to worsened cognitive function and memory and increased depression. Older adults have greater difficulty performing complex memory or learning tests compared to younger adults. An older brain, however, can still be a healthy, powerful organ that remains sharp long into old age.
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Experts recommend a combination of measures to ensure that the brain has the best chance of staying at tip-top shape. One is physical exercise, as exercise may slow down the deterioration of an aging brain by reversing its effects. Exercise increases blood flow, nerve cells, and synapses; some studies believe that physical activity causes a protein to be released that helps keep nerve cells healthy. All of this helps cognitive abilities and memory. A second recommendation going hand-in-hand with physical exercise is diet: following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services goes a long way towards ensuring the best diet to help maintain brain health. The Mediterranean diet in particular, rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, olive oil, and proteins from plant sources, is beneficial for brain health. Other recommendations for brain health include taking care of medical conditions (lowering blood pressure/cholesterol and improving blood sugar allows cognition to remain good and decreases the risk of dementia, for example) and taking care of emotional health, as strong social networks and restful sleep help keep cognitive abilities high and are good for overall health. Recently, experts have recommended that more seniors bring up brain health and request being screened for cognitive issues to help maintain healthy brains.
On top of all this, most experts also agree on one more thing to help keep older brains as healthy as possible: mentally stimulating activities. Professor Sheung-Tak Cheng of The Education University of Hong Kong describes physical activity as supporting the “hardware” of the brain (neuronal structural integrity and preservation of brain mass), while mental activity supports the “software” of the brain (neural circuits). Mentally stimulating activity helps improve cognitive abilities, and some of these activities may help prevent or delay Alzheimer’s for certain individuals. Additionally, there is evidence that as it ages, the brain is still able to adapt to new functions and challenges. But “mentally stimulating activity” sounds rather general and slightly vague - what kinds of mental activities are best for brain health in older age?
Many experts recommend that for the mental activity to be effective in supporting brain health, it should be novel and complex (that is, it keeps your brain active and challenged). Dr. Lawrence Katz, a well-known neurobiologist, believes that novel and complex brain exercises help create new connections between brain cells and keep the brain sharp. For further reference, see Katz’s book: Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness.
Examples of such novel and complex mental activities can be:
- Puzzles: Doing a lot of Sudoku and crossword puzzles lead to better attention, memory, and reasoning, says a study of 19,000 British people over 50 who were tracked for 25 years. Regularly doing Sudoku and crosswords led to problem-solving performance of an average of eight years younger (compared to those who don’t do these puzzles regularly). Regular puzzle-doers also scored eight to ten years younger than their age on grammatical reasoning and short-term memory tests.
- Games: Games such as chess involve calculated decisions and moves that requires thinking several steps ahead, keeping the brain sharp and challenged. Video games, specially manufactured games - most or all games require mental energy and the ability to divide attention and tasks; exercising this through games can delay cognitive decline. A University of Iowa study of 681 people of age 50 and over performed seven years better than their age after playing 10 hours of a specially designed video game.
- Formal education: Learning a new skill, like computers or gardening, is a novel activity that can stretch the brain. A new skill can also be learning a new language, as increased vocabulary and involved listening is especially beneficial for the brain. These new things to learn create new connections in the brain that were not there before, and brain cell growth can occur into older adulthood. Many campuses offer free or discounted tuition for seniors, and community colleges are a great place to look into for this. There are also online classes that are available, although the social interaction brought by being on a campus is also beneficial for health.
- Reading or learning about new things: New subjects will grow your brain! Outside of formal education, looking into something through books or podcasts is an alternative way to learn. Books and podcasts are available on almost any kind of new subject out there.
- Meditation: A growing number of studies show that meditation is promising for brain health. There are many kinds of meditation, but they all require a stillness of the body and mind that have proven benefits. For the brain, specifically, meditation is correlated with better memory, both short- and long-term. Meditation can also help maintain cognitive function; a review of a dozen studies published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences links meditation to good attention, memory, executive function, processing speed and cognition. There are meditation classes, meditation podcasts, and different ways to implement different kinds of meditation in daily life, which makes meditation accessible. It also improves a host of mental and physical conditions, all without medication.
- Tasks requiring manual dexterity
- Arts: Painting, drawing, and crafts can be new skills to acquire that require concentration and focus - and create (eventually) beautiful keepsakes at the end!
- Using chopsticks, if you aren’t used to it.
- Switching hands: Using your non-dominant hand increases brain activity by challenging it.
- A new sport: An excellent idea would be a sport that uses both mind and body, such as yoga, tennis, and golf. These sports especially require meditation, concentration, and technique. As mentioned above, while exercising the mind is important to maintain brain health, it is inextricably linked to physical exercise as well.
- Online sites for brain training: there are various sites online that offer “brain training,” a series of mental exercises or challenges to complete. For example, https://www.braingle.com offers over 15,000 brain teasers, riddles, logic problems and mind puzzles. Lumosity, at https://www.lumosity.com/en, also claims to help memory and focus. Experts caution, however, that while such brain-training games may be associated with better cognition, there isn’t a definitive causative link between the two.
- Activities using many of your senses: A trip to the farmer’s market or camping can involve many senses and more of your brain.
- Working: If not yet retired, work can be a source of mental stimulation and challenge that helps keep the brain active and continuously learning.
- Running a household or family: This also requires time management, multitasking, and myriad other functions that are beneficial for the brain’s functioning.
The more novel and complex the mental activity is, the more benefits the brain will reap. It is important to note, however, that these activities have not been proven to prevent dementia (Alzheimer’s included) or even age-related decline. What they do do is improve mental ability and provide a “higher starting point from which to decline.” In any case, these activities have a great potential to enrich life and make it more interesting. Happy mental exercising!
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