Are you concerned about protecting your brain as you age?
If so, you’re not alone: In arecent survey, nearly half of older Americans described themselves as “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about developing cognition and memory issues. (It doesn’t hurt to talk to your practitioner about any changes you may have noticed, especially if they’ve occurred abruptly or after an injury or illness.)
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to defend your thinking skills.
“Our behavior throughout our life affects how our brain ages,” saysVonetta Dotson, PhD, a brain researcher at Georgia State University. “I find that knowledge empowering because it means that there is a lot under our control.”
In fact, one of the first steps you might want to take is to avoid making too many “senior moment” jokes.
“Middle-aged and older learners do worse on memory tasks when they're exposed to negative stereotypes about aging and memory, and better when the messages are positive,” says the team atHarvard Health. “If you believe you can improve and you translate that belief into practice, you have a better chance of keeping your mind sharp.”
Live a Brain-Healthy Lifestyle
Trying novel ways of boosting your cognition will only work if you’re living a basically healthy lifestyle, which will help your body as well as your mind. That means:
- Following a consistent fitness plan. “If there’s a fountain of youth, it’s exercise,” says Dotson, who adds that studies have linked physical activity withincreases in brain size andimprovements in cerebral blood flow, among other positive effects.
- Sleeping soundly on a regular basis. “Sleep is really a game-changer when it comes to brain health,” notes Dotson. She saysresearch has shown that “sleep functions like a rinse cycle,” allowing the brain to clear out toxic waste while you snooze.
- Eating a healthy diet…and especially avoiding sugar. The sweet stuff is as bad for your brain as it is for your body, so cut consumption as much as possible. Instead, Harvard Health recommends eating fatty fish, a good source of omega-3 fats; walnuts, rich in both healthy fats and protein; and berries, which provide brain-friendly phytonutrients.
- Finding a way to reduce stress levels. Not surprisingly, stress has been found to behard on the brain. One way to counteract stress is “through developing a meditation practice, even if it's just 10 to 20 minutes a day,” says resilience consultantEva Selhub, MD. She also recommends other stress busters such as “yoga, tai chi or engaging in a spiritual practice or ritual, like prayer.”
- Dealing with depression. Dotson notes that the brain regions most affected by aging, especially an area called theprefrontal cortex, show similar changes in people who are depressed. If you suffer from depression (Mental Health America offers a self-assessment toolhere), get help.
7 Tips for Staying Mentally Sharp
Living a healthy life but want some other ways to maintain brain fitness? Try these tips.
Aid Your Brain
For starters, there are some things you just don’t need to waste brainpower on.
Instead of worrying about where your keys are or the dates of your grandkids’ birthdays, “take advantage of smartphone reminders, calendars and planners, maps, shopping lists, file folders and address books to keep routine information accessible,” suggests Harvard Health. “Designate a place at home for your glasses, purse, keys and other items you use often.”
Harvard Health also recommends using repetition as a memory tool: “When you want to remember something you've just heard, read or thought about, repeat it out loud or write it down.” Just been told someone’s name? Use it when speaking with that person: “Diana, when did you move to this neighborhood?”
However, to absorb more complicated information, “it's best not to repeat something many times in a short period,” says Harvard Health. “Instead, re-study the essentials after increasingly longer periods of time—once an hour, then every few hours, then every day.”
Be a Lifelong Learner
Keep learning new things, even if it’s been decades since you last stepped foot in a classroom.
“Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them,” explains Harvard Health.
“Learning a new language can be beneficial,” suggestsA Place for Mom (APFM), which helps families find senior living arrangements. “Duolingo andBabbel are both fun and effective virtual options for practicing a new language.”
In addition, take up a new hobby—anything from cooking to bird watching to flying model planes will do. Many senior centers, public libraries andcolleges offer low-cost lectures and classes for older adults.
Read More (and Write)
One of those new hobbies you should consider: Reading more.
APFM cites a publishedstudy in which reading (and writing) in one’s later years was shown to reduce the rate of memory decline by 32%. In addition to setting time aside to read every day, you can read to your grandchildren, or join or start a book club.
You should also try your hand at writing, even if you haven’t done so up to now. “Writing improves working memory and communication abilities,” says APFM.
It doesn’t matter what your skill level is—no one else has to read what you write. Stories, journal entries, handwritten letters or cards, lyrics, poetry…find whatever form you’re most comfortable with and enjoy yourself!
Play Games…and Music
Another fun way to give your brain a workout is through art and play.
“Paint, color an adult coloring book, or grab a pen and paper and draw,” says APFM, which also recommends games such as chess, Scrabble, Sudoku and Wordle as well asgames and apps specifically designed for brain-training purposes.
“Brain plasticity refers to the brain's ability to constantly change over the course of a person's lifetime. And this plasticity can be maintained—and better yet, improved—by engaging in cognitive training exercises.” explains Selhub.
Listening to, or learning how to play, music is another way to aid your brain while enjoying yourself—at least onestudy has found that it improves memory function in older people.
Actually, Dotson recommends switching among several of these activities, saying, “Like cross-training for physical fitness, we get the most benefit when we engage in a variety of brain-healthy behaviors.”
Practice Good Posture
Sitting and standing up straight and tall doesn’t just enhance your looks; it also “improves circulation and blood flow to the brain,” according to APFM.
To maintain good posture, keep yourself at a healthy weight; “carrying extra weight adds stress to your muscles and makes it more difficult to maintain proper posture,” says APFM. You should also try to improve your balance with practices such as yoga or even simply standing on one foot for 30 seconds and then the other, once or twice a day.
Use All Your Senses
Sight is the sense we often focus on, but don’t forget the others when trying to form new memories.
“The more senses you use in learning something, the more of your brain that will be involved in retaining the memory,” says Harvard Health, which cites astudy in which people showed a better ability to recall images when those images were accompanied by a pleasant smell.
Want to form sharp memories of a trip to a lake, for example? Then take time to close your eyes and concentrate on the sounds of the water and the wind, on the smell of pine trees, on how sunshine warms your face.
Listen Deeply to Others
One reason we often can’t recall conversations is that we aren’t fully tuned in.
“Any time you're engaged in activities that require communication, your neurons need to fire and synapses need to function,” says Selhub. “You want to get into the practice of regularly quieting the mind so that the neurons can do their job of communicating.”
That’s why she recommends a practice she calls deep listening:
- Pause—don’t rush when communicating.
- Inhale deeply and exhale completely.
- Listen with your heart, noticing how the words make you feel and trying to engage all of your senses.
- If you react emotionally to what the other person says, try jotting down your feelings to find clarity before responding.
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