8 activities to keep your brain sharp
Misplaced keys, a missed appointment, a word on the tip of your tongue, walking into a room and not remembering why. Sound familiar?
It’s a fact of life that sometimes we forget things, no matter what our age. But as we get older, our brain’s volume gradually shrinks. When this occurs, nerve cells in our brain can lose connections with one another and blood flow can slow, resulting in the differences in cognitive function you may be noticing as you age. However, it’s comforting to know that significant memory loss is not a normal part of getting older, and there are several things you can do to stop that from happening.
Here are eight activities to keep your brain sharp:
1. Learn something new
Experts believe that a higher level of education is associated with better mental functioning in old age. The theory goes that people with more years of formal learning have built up “cognitive reserve”, which is the brain’s ability to use connections between nerve cells (Alzheimer’s Association).
While for most of us, the opportunity for higher education may be long gone, it’s never too late to learn something new. Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them.
Learn an IT skill such as how to use Instagram or call friends and family using video chat ; join a book group, play chess or bridge, write your life story, do crossword, sudoku or jigsaw puzzles, take a class, pursue music or art or design a new garden layout.
2. Use all your senses
Have you ever smelt a distinct smell, and been instantly transported back to a long-forgotten summer in Europe, or been reminded of a particularly wonderful meal?
The science is fascinating, but the short answer is that the brain regions that juggle smells, memories and emotions are very much intertwined.
Music can also be a strong trigger for memory. A series of recent studies has found that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.
So how can we use this phenomena to help keep our brain active? Try challenging all your senses when you try something new. Try to guess the ingredients as you smell and taste a new food. And put the radio on while you do – music is based on relationships between one note and the next, so while you may not be aware of it, your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.
3. Stay physically active
Regular physical activity is thought to help maintain blood flow to the brain and reduce your risk for conditions such as high blood pressure that are associated with the development of dementia. (everydayhealth.com).
More indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and can help reduce stress and anxiety – both of which can be a contributing factor to cognitive impairment.
4. Eat a healthy diet
This one almost goes without saying – eating well helps overall body function, including our brains. While a healthy weight helps with controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, both of which can help improve cognitive function, researchers have also found that vitamin E, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids could help prevent dementia, and green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, and seafood are neuroprotective. And while you’re at it, quit smoking and any excessive drinking – both put you at increased risk of dementia.
5. Declutter your mind
Just like a messy house, it can be hard to make space in a cluttered mind for new things. So use memory aids to clear some space – calendars, planners, shopping list, files and address books. Create a special place at home for your glasses, purse, keys, and other items you use often – so you always know where they are.
If you don’t need to use mental energy remembering where you laid your keys or the time of your granddaughter’s birthday party, you’ll be better able to concentrate on learning and remembering new and important things.
6. Use brain-training techniques
Next time you need to remember a new friend’s name or the five things you need at the supermarket, try one of these techniques:
- Repeat it – If you’ve just been told someone’s name, use it when you speak with him or her: “So, John, where did you meet Mary?” If you place one of your belongings somewhere other than its usual spot, tell yourself out loud what you’ve done. And don’t hesitate to ask for information to be repeated.
- Revisit it – If high school taught us anything, it’s that cramming doesn’t work. Instead, re-study the essentials after increasingly longer periods of time — once an hour, then every few hours, then every day.
- Make a mnemonic – This is a creative way to remember lists. North, South, East, West becomes Never Eat Soggy Weet-bix. Or how about the name Roy G. Biv to remember the colours of the rainbow? Can you think of any other classics? And try making one up next time you need those few things at the supermarket.
Making new friends or spending time with the ones you have might be good for your brain. A 2018 study published in Scientific Reports that looked at older adults in China found that participants with consistently high or increased social engagement had a lower risk of dementia than those with consistently low social engagement.
8. Believe in yourself
Research shows that it’s all in the mind. Negative stereotypes around ageing and memory contribute strongly to older people seeing themselves in the same way and losing the motivation to take active steps to stay sharp, as they believe they’re a ‘lost cause’. People who believe that they are not in control of their memory function are less likely to work at maintaining or improving their memory skills and therefore are more likely to experience cognitive decline.
If you believe you can improve and you translate that belief into practice, you have a better chance of keeping your mind sharp.
It’s never too late to start sharpening your brain. Just a few minutes a day on any of the above activities can help. Get going on a new mental workout today!