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Mental Exercises to Keep Your Brain Sharp

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 7/3/2020 Elaine K. Howley
Senior retired man doing a puzzle, only hands. © (Getty Images) Senior retired man doing a puzzle, only hands.

No matter how hard we try to slow or stop its movement, time marches inevitably on. As it does, our bodies and their abilities change, too. For some people that means certain changes that can alter how we interact with and perceive the world around us.

"Aging is a natural process," says Dr. Douglas Scharre, director of the division of cognitive neurology and memory disorders at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Some of those changes involve the accumulation of gray hairs and wrinkles and the development of osteoarthritis in the joints.

Along with those very obvious changes, the brain also loses neurons, Scharre says. "Normal aging will lead to slower mental processing speed. We can still figure things out, it just takes longer."

Signs of this delayed processing may include difficulty recalling names of people and becoming a bit more forgetful. "However, if we're given some context, the name of the person and the memories all return intact," he explains.

This is all very normal and shouldn't worry you in excess, as these changes are just a continuation of normal processes that follow us throughout life, says Heather M. Snyder, vice president, medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago. "From the time we're born and to becoming a toddler and beyond, there's lots of changes with the brain. And those changes don't stop because you reach a certain age. Changes are reflected across our entire lives."

However, concerns surrounding changes in cognitive function and age do crop up when brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia develop. The memory problems associated with these conditions are quite different from normal aging and may include:

  • Difficulty finding the right word.
  • Disruptive memory loss, typically noticed by a partner or other family member.
  • Loss of spatial abilities, such as getting lost while driving to familiar locations.
  • Difficulty with planning and organizing.
  • Feeling confused or disoriented.
  • Changes in personality or mood, such as increased agitation, behaving inappropriately or becoming anxious or paranoid.
  • Depression.

Scharre adds that even if dementia is not at work, "some people lose more cognitive acuity than others as they age because they've had other brain diseases or have had some damage to their brain over their life." For example, if you had a head injury, a series of small strokes or exposure to certain toxins that can damage the brain, that could cause you to lose more acuity than someone who has a healthy brain and no such complicating factors.

Use It or Lose It

No matter what your current brain health situation looks like, there are a few things you can do now to help slow or stall the loss of cognitive function over time and keep your brain sharp. All involve using the brain, which functions better when it's being challenged regularly. "To keep a brain healthy as we age, I firmly believe that we must 'use it or lose it,'" Scharre says.

Play games and complete puzzles. In addition to the daily crossword puzzle, challenge yourself to doing a new problem-solving exercise every day or a few times a week. "Puzzles and games, especially those involving novelty, can stimulate and challenge key parts of the brain, including reasoning, language, logic, visual perception, attention and flexibility," Scharre says. Brain teasers such as crossword puzzles and sudoku are fun and easy ways to keep your brain stimulated. Completing a jigsaw puzzle or playing a computer game may also support brain health.

Engage in continuous learning. Have you always wanted to learn French or how to play an instrument? There's no time like the present, especially when it comes to preserving cognitive ability. Taking a class or otherwise establishing a routine of continuous learning can pay dividends in helping you learn the skill you want to acquire but will also help support brain health over the long term, Scharre says. "The Alzheimer's Association reports that continuous learning likely protects against some forms of dementia, possibly because brain cells and their connections with one another become stronger over time."

Read and write. Snyder says that some research has suggested that flexing your literacy skills could be protective against dementia. A 2019 study found that illiterate older adults were almost three times as likely to have dementia compared to their literate counterparts. It seems reading, whether for pleasure or for work, gives your brain a workout that might help prevent the development of cognitive deficits.

Pick up a new hobby or engage in new experiences. Traveling to a new place and finding your way around and learning about a different culture or people is a fabulous way to keep your brain sharp as you age. It's not always possible, but if you have the resources and ability to travel, those experiences will help protect your brain's ability to think, plan and enjoy life to the fullest in the future. Closer to home, consider picking up a new hobby. Learn to paint, take up stamp collecting or get into gardening. Any new pursuit that gets you thinking can help.

The key to all of these activities, Snyder says, is that whatever you're doing should be "new to you" to provide the biggest brain boost. The novelty of learning something new or going to a new place is what forces the brain to work harder and stay sharper.

Other Ways to Support Brain Health

The brain is part of the body as a whole, and it's also home to our emotions. As such, tending to mental health can support physical heath.

Be heart-healthy. There's a saying in medicine that what's good for the heart is good for the brain, so adopting heart-healthy behaviors, including plenty of aerobic exercise and eating right can support a healthy brain along with a healthy heart over the long run. "Your heart is pumping blood throughout the body and if it's not working it's best, it might not be getting enough blood and oxygen to the brain," Snyder says.

Exercise. "Physical exercise is one of the best ways to provide brain stimulation," Scharre says. "Your brain is working hard when you exercise, controlling your muscles and coordination, knowing when to slow down or continue on." Snyder recommends ballroom dancing as a great option because not only is it physical, but you'll also have to think about your next steps and the sequence of moves that add up to a dance. Plus, there's some evidence that music can be good for the brain and learning to dance can be a lot of fun that has you interacting with others in a social setting. If you don't like the idea of dancing, consider doing yoga, swimming, biking or walking. Whatever activity you prefer most that you'll stick with over the long term is the right one for getting you moving more.

Stay socially engaged. "Research shows that human interaction keeps your brain sharp by reducing the destructive stress hormone cortisol," Scharre says. And social outings, such as having lunch with friends, "provide mental stimulation, which can build and sustain cognitive power," he says.

Quit smoking. "Among the many health reasons smoking is bad for your body is that it can hinder brain function," Scharre says. In fact, "one study proved that smoking just one cigarette a day for an extended period can reduce cognitive ability, and smoking 15 cigarettes daily hinders critical thinking and memory by almost 2%. When you stop smoking, your brain benefits from increased circulation almost instantly."

Get enough sleep. While we're sleeping our brains are working hard to tidy up from the previous day and get ready for the next. But if we don't get good sleep, that can disrupt that process and lead to trouble. "Sleep disturbances such as sleep apnea disrupt the brain's ability to go through certain biological changes and essentially take out its trash," Snyder says. The longer you deal with chronic sleep disturbances, the more trouble that can spell for your brain, so be sure to go to bed at the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning and establish other patterns of good sleep hygiene. If you have insomnia, sleep apnea or snore, talk with your doctor about managing those conditions so you can get a better night's rest.

Control other conditions. Particularly if you have diabetes, heart disease, depression or high blood pressure, seek help in managing these issues as they can impact brain health. People with these conditions have a higher likelihood of developing dementia later in life.

Eat right. A heart-healthy diet such as the Ornish diet, the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet can support good brain health. Eating right can also help keep your weight in check, which may also reduce the risk of developing cognitive issues over time. And, Snyder notes, new research into the gut microbiome has indicated there's a connection between good bacteria that live in the gut and brain health. Eating to support your gut health might end up also supporting brain health.

A Holistic Approach

The key to all of this, Snyder says, is to take a combination of approaches, rather than focusing on just one aspect of supporting brain health. It seems that brain-protective activities such as those above work best when applied in combating, but there are still lots of outstanding questions about what works best and how much you need to get real benefits.

To help answer such questions, Snyder says numerous studies are ongoing. On large one is the Alzheimer's Association's U.S. Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk. That two-year clinical trial seeks to evaluate whether lifestyle interventions that simultaneously target many risk factors protect cognitive function in older adults who are at increased risk for cognitive decline, and it's the first such study to be conducted in a large group of Americans across the United States. "The only way we can get those answers is by doing the studies, and for that we need participants to volunteer," Snyder says.

Copyright 2020 U.S. News & World Report


Gallery: These Commons Reasons for Forgetfulness Have Nothing to Do With Alzheimer's (Prevention)

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