by Jessica Toomer
We all know exercise and healthy eating habits can help our bodies to live longer, but what about our brains? For some, there’s a real fear that increased age comes with a decline in cognitive function. We’re not talking about Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or other illnesses, but a normal wear-and-tear of the brain, when memory begins to slip, when simple tasks become more difficult, when you feel like you’re not as smart or sharp as you used to be. Those can sometimes accompany age, but they don’t have to.
Here are seven easy tasks you can do to keep your brain in shape as you age.
Research shows that a higher level of education is linked to better mental function in old age. Scientists believe it’s because continued education helps people develop the habit of being mentally active. Of course, you don’t have to enroll in school again to keep your thinking-cap turned on. Learning any new skill helps to build up those brain cells and challenge your cognitive abilities. Been wanting to try a new language or take an art class? Both would get the neurons firing. And if that’s too much, think about volunteering for a project at work or around the house that you normally wouldn’t do. Any new activity is good activity for your brain.
Speaking of activity, we all know exercise keeps the body healthy, but did you know your brain also needs a workout? And the best part is your brain benefits despite the intensity level of your physical activity. Anything that gets your heart pumping means more blood flow to the brain and a good workout increases the chemicals responsible for creating new neural connections. Go hiking on a trail that tests your balance, that way you’re actively thinking during your walk. Or, pick up a new sport, maybe tennis or badminton. Anything that gets you moving, gets your brain moving too.
We can’t stress enough how important sleep is for the brain. There’s a lot going on upstairs once we turn in for the night, and all of it is essential for our cognitive function. For instance, did you know that your brain stores memory, and gets rid of useless information, while you sleep? Or that your brain removes harmful toxins, some of which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, while we’re snoozing? In other words, sleep might be how your body powers down, but your brain uses that time to recharge neural connections and filter out any unwanted junk from your operating system, so getting enough Z’s is crucial.
Listening to music is a fun pastime for many, but your favorite tune is even more valuable to your brain than it is your eardrums. That’s because music, playing it or the act of listening to it, tests our brains in ways no other activity can. According to researchers at John Hopkins, music is “structural, mathematical, and architectural” meaning the brain must do a ton of computing for you to perceive and understand a string of notes. It does it so quickly, you don’t realize the extra effort involved, but the benefits of continuously challenging your brain by picking up an instrument and learning a new tune or listening to a genre of music you normally wouldn’t, are immeasurable.
There are plenty of easy, fun ways to challenge your brain, and all of them force new neural connections, help improve memory, and ultimately, make your brain stronger. You can play a game of chess or Scrabble with a friend, eat a meal with the opposite hand, try listening to an audiobook instead of reading one, or take a new route to work one morning. All of these activities test your brain by switching up routines, forcing it to expend just a bit more energy.
Meditation may be the single most effective mental exercise we can do to keep our brains healthy. That’s because it takes work and concentration to turn off one’s thoughts. It requires an enormous amount of effort to clear the mind, but if you can manage it, meditation has been proven to reduce cortisol in the brain, that nasty chemical responsible for stress which also eats away at our memories
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