Arianna Ferrini, PhD
As we are living longer, we should dedicate habits and behaviours that ensure good health and mental function in our later decades. Read on to find out what you can do today, to enjoy a sharper, clearer and efficient brain in your golden years.
Research has confirmed that when it comes to the brain, “use it or lose it” is definitely true. Stimulating and challenging your brain helps to keep your memory sharp, and your brain cells healthy. Just as physical exercise strengthens your muscles, brain games and exercises strengthen your neural networks, which lower your risk of cognitive decline, and memory loss.
The thing to keep in mind is that the more enjoyable the activity is for you, the more powerful its effects will be on your brain (and also the more likely you will go back to the activity).
Here are some practical examples of activities and brain games to keep your memory at its best:
Learn something new
An interesting research study in 2014 assigned older adults a variety of new skills to learn, and soon after, tested their memory. Their results were compared with another group of older adults, who performed activities that were engaging, (watching a movie, or listening to the radio), but not mentally challenging. The researchers found that participants who learned something new, performed better in the memory test. Interestingly, the improvements were still noticeable after one year. 4 Learning something new permanently rewires your brain cells, and is probably the best and easiest tip to keep your memory sharp. Learning something new will also lift your mood, making you feel more accomplished.
It requires a bit of commitment, but it is certainly going to pay off. You can learn anything these days, online, join a class, or group learning with friends and family. Pick a subject that interests you, whether it photography, quilting, pilates, languages, guitar, drama, etc.
Learning something new also includes improving your existing skills how well you do existing skills. If you already speak a foreign language, commit to improving your fluency. Or, if you’re a keen golfer, aim to lower your handicap. This is also challenging enough to be a good workout for your brain.
Teach someone something new
One of the best ways to expand your learning is by learning how to teach something to someone. Once you have learned a new skill, you need to practice it in order not to lose it. Teaching someone forces your brain to process information deeply, think about it clearly, refine your understanding, and correct potential mistakes as you go.
Indulge Your Ears
According to a study, listening to happy tunes enhances creativity and brainpower, facilitating divergent thinking. 5 It basically helps you generate more innovative solutions than being in silence. What are you waiting for? Crank up some feel-good music, and your brain will thank you.
Put the Pieces Together
Working on a jigsaw puzzle makes your look at different pieces and figure out where they fit within the larger picture. Completing a puzzle engages many functions of the brain: perception, mental rotation, working memory, and reasoning. This can be a great way to challenge and exercise your brain.
Practice crosswords puzzles
Crosswords puzzles are not only a good way to spend time. They are also one of the most common activities that, if done regularly, work against the effects of brain aging. Regularly does not necessarily mean every day, once a week might be fine. Crossword puzzles are also a great way to learn new words and think deeply about their meaning. Number puzzles like Sudoku can also work. Clinical studies showed that the crosswords puzzle could slow down the cognitive decrease in people suffering from very early-stage dementia.
Have you ever heard of collaborative cruciverbalism? It means solving crossword puzzles in a group. While solving them alone is certainly beneficial for the brain, doing it as part of a group could be even better because it forces you to think more strategically. If solved in a group, they also trigger bonding and might keep your social life active, which we’ve seen is an essential step towards healthy aging.
Play memory card games
Memory card games can stimulate short-term working memory and the ability to remember patterns. They stimulate areas in the brain connected with recall and recognition, and this can be a great way to keep your memory on its toes.
Another great game to play to keep the brain healthy is chess.
This exercise stimulates many different parts of the brain. Navigating your area while you are driving, for example, is way easier than remembering it and drawing it only by memory. Definitely, a challenge you can try!
Meditation is the ultimate brain workout. It has been used in the Eastern culture for centuries and is now becoming increasingly popular for its effects on mental health and overall wellbeing.
Research has also demonstrated that regular meditation practice is able to rewire neural patterns. Its effects are a decrease in stress levels and anxiety, improved concentration and focus, and increased mental flexibility.
Mindfulness meditation, which is the type of meditation that is now gaining interest worldwide, is all about being present in the moment. The good news is that you don’t have to sit on the floor for hours like a Buddhist monk to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can easily become part of your daily life.
The first step of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. It could be as easy as using all your senses while carrying out some everyday action – think about eating an orange using all you sense. Appreciate its wonderful color, feel its skin and texture, smell its beautiful citrus scent, hear if there are some almost imperceptible sounds while peeling it, and finally taste it in your mouth, paying attention to the sensations it’s giving you. This is what being mindful means.
All of this can help your brain stay engaged with your daily activities. Not only will you feel less stressed, but you will also have a tool to keep your brain engaged when you feel on autopilot (think about how many times you have eaten an orange without paying attention to the things above, for example).
Practice Tai Chi
Tai Chi is a form of gentle exercise that involves movement, breathing, and meditation. Tai Chi has several benefits for the physical and mental health of people of all ages.
Comparing the brain of those who regularly practice Tai Chi with those who did not practice it shows that Tai Chi leads to greater connectivity between different parts of the brain and enhanced function. This can slow down the rate of memory loss and improve cognition.
About Arianna Ferrini
Arianna is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London (UK). She holds a PhD in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine from Imperial College London (UK) and an MSc in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology from the University of Florence (Italy). She's an enthusiastic science communicator and works as a freelance writer and editor.
- Jonsdottir, I. H. et al. Working memory and attention are still impaired after three years in patients with stress-related exhaustion. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 58, 504-509, (2017).
- Mintzer, J. et al. Lifestyle Choices and Brain Health. Front Med (Lausanne) 6, 204-204, (2019).
- Choi, D., Choi, S. & Park, S. M. Effect of smoking cessation on the risk of dementia: a longitudinal study. Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology 5, 1192-1199, (2018).
- Park, D. C. et al. The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project. Psychological Science 25, 103-112, (2013).
- Ritter, S. M. & Ferguson, S. Happy creativity: Listening to happy music facilitates divergent thinking. PLOS ONE 12, e0182210, (2017).