While the physical effects of aging are often easy to identify (wrinkles, gray hair, muscle loss, etc.), the effects on brain health are much more difficult to notice.
The reality is that measurable changes in cognitive abilities occur during the aging process. These changes in brain activity can be hard to identify, even by the person currently experiencing them.
There isn’t any way to reverse the effects of aging, but there might be a few things that can help to delay them.
The brain is a complex organ composed of soft tissues, fats, and water. It relies on two things to function properly: a steady supply of essential nutrientsand daily mental stimulation (aka brain training).
While it’s technically not a muscle, you can exercise your brain with various problem-solving activities and brain games that can promote increased brainpower. Here are nine activities that can help to improve your memory and cognitive skills.
1. Put Together a Jigsaw Puzzle
Even relatively simple jigsaw puzzles require using your “visual-spatial working memory” skills. You’ll need to focus on the lines and colors of each piece and how they relate to the bigger picture. The different shapes will also offer another option for solving that will require you to memorize various patterns in the puzzle.
Start with a smaller puzzle (100 or so pieces) that you can finish in a single day. You can work your way up to a medium puzzle (300 to 500 pieces) that could take a whole weekend to complete. From there, you’ll be able to move on to jigsaw puzzles that contain thousands of pieces.
2. Fill Out a Crossword Puzzle
Crossword puzzles offer a unique blend of verbal and numerical memory skills. You’ll need to think of words that fit the description of the clue and only use a certain amount of letters. Utilizing these skills may help delay the onset of cognitive decline commonly associated with the preclinical stages of dementia.
You can easily find a large book of crossword puzzles at your local grocery store or gas station. There are also dozens of apps that feature crossword puzzles for free.
Alternatively, you can simply try to finish the crossword puzzle in your local paper. For a serious challenge, you can try to finish The New York Times daily crossword puzzle or find a sudoku book to support your cognitive health.
3. Join a Card Game
A deck of cards offers an endless possibility of different games. Several brain benefits are possible, whether your game of choice is poker, bridge, hearts, rummy, or euchre. Single-player games such as solitaire are also effective, but the most beneficial games require partners or opponents.
To succeed at these games, you’ll need to pay close attention to your cards, the cards that have been played, and your opponents — this will all require a lot of memory and thinking skills spread across several brain regions. Exercising these regions can promote enhanced executive control and cognitive function.
4. Get Physically Active
Everyone knows that getting in more exercise is an excellent way to support your physical health and wellness. What might not be as well known is that exercise is also an excellent way to support your mental health.
You don’t necessarily need to live in the gym or maintain a specific type of exercise routine that would shame an Olympic athlete, but you should try moderate physical activity for about 150 minutes weekly to support your mental fitness.
One of the main reasons that exercise can be beneficial for your memory is that it can increase your brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The BDNF is a molecular factor responsible for synaptogenesis (creating new synapses).
By having more synapses, your brain can easily absorb information and retain it in the form of long-term memories. Try a new training program to deter some of the natural memory loss that comes with aging.
5. Learn a New Language
Understanding and utilizing your native language will require using a few different brain regions. Even learning new words in your native tongue (such as on a word-of-the-day calendar) is one way to help boost your memory. However, more brain benefits come if you try to learn an entirely new language.
Learning the new words and grammar rules of a new language can be a challenging new skill. Your brain will have to rewire itself and increase the working memory you use when communicating. As a result, being bilingual can promote better memory, improve visual-spatial skills, and boost creativity.
6. Put on Your Dancing Shoes
Dancing provides an excellent opportunity for combining physical and mental exercise. The physicality involved with dancing is a great way to work up a sweat and get your heart pumping. As if that wasn’t enough benefit, dancing also appears to help the brain develop new neural connections in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition.
People have been dancing since before the earliest recorded events in human history. There are countless dances that you can learn in a class. You could learn how to tango and be the talk of your next ballroom event, or you could learn how to line dance and show off at the next state fair.
On the other hand, you could simply create your unique dance and go as wild as you want during a night on the town. Whatever gets your feet moving and hips wiggling will be beneficial for your brain.
7. Let Your Non-Dominant Hand Take the Spotlight
Most children develop a preferred hand around 18 months or so, so you’ve been using your dominant hand for a long time.
By switching to the other hand more often, you’ll be stimulating both the cognitive and creative functions of the brain. Simple tasks would suddenly require much more focus and communication between your body and brain.
The most effective activity that you should try is writing or drawing. It will probably take a few weeks of practice before you can write anything legible.
You could also try using your non-dominant hand when brushing your teeth, eating dinner, or using a computer. It’ll be harder than you think to succeed in these activities, but the mental rewards will be well worth the effort!
8. Learn How To Play an Instrument
Being able to create music is one of the most worthwhile and rewarding hobbies that you can learn. It’s also extremely beneficial for your brain — you will use almost every major part of your central nervous system to play a musical instrument.
The peripheral nervous system is used when one hand is doing something different than the other. The executive function is used to consider any upcoming notes you’ll play. Your brain employs visual, auditory, and tactile sensations when playing an instrument. The list goes on and on.
You don’t need to learn how to perform every instrument in an orchestra. Simply pick your favorite sound and get to learning.
Naturally, some instruments will be a bit easier to learn than others. You don’t need to learn how to play the violin, accordion, or bagpipes to experience the benefits. The ukulele, harmonica, or bongos will utilize the same brain functions and are typically much easier for a beginner musician to grasp.
If you plan on moving to other instruments, the piano is a great place to start since you’ll learn most of what you’ll need to be able to transfer knowledge over to try something new.
9. Embrace Your Inner Peace With Mediation
The act of meditation has a long history and is strongly tied to a variety of different religions. In modern times, meditation is much less of an only-religious practice and is commonly exercise to improve spiritual and emotional well-being.
Meditating can take a lot of work, but many potential benefits can ensue. The benefits of meditation are far more than just spiritual and emotional — evidence shows they might be physical as well.
Studies have found that engaging in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction can increase the cortical thickness in the hippocampus. As a result, new neural pathways can develop, increasing attention, focus, empathy, and mental flexibility.
Exercise Your Brain To Boost Its Strength
The aging process naturally comes with many physical and mental changes. While you may be unable to stop these effects, you have a few ways of slowing them down. Keeping your brain as strong as possible is the best way to stay sharp as you age and delay cognitive decline.
The first way to do that is by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods. Your brain can use the nutrients found in these foods to support its neurons and ward off the effects of aging. Fortunately, the foods that are most healthy for your brain are typically very healthy for your body, too!
The second way to maintain your brain’s abilities is by performing various mental and physical exercises. Getting enough physical exercise each week and participating in some of the mental activities listed above is an excellent start for boosting your overall brain power. Most of these activities are so fun that you probably won’t even mind doing them after a while!