Having trouble remembering a new name or doing more than one task at a time? You’re not alone. Studies show the brain’s volume peaks in your 20s and begins to decline after that, resulting in memory loss and other cognitive struggles.
The good news is that by simply changing daily habits sooner than later, you can keep your mind sharp and lower the risk of dementia.
“Prioritizing your brain health at a younger age can have cumulative effects as you get older,” says Krystal Culler, founder of the consulting company Your Brain Health Matters and a senior fellow with the Global Brain Health Institute. “Engage in an active lifestyle that builds your brain’s cognitive reserve, which is stored up throughout your lifetime and includes continual lifelong learning, physical exercise, sleep, meditation, diet, socialization and volunteering, among other factors. Essentially, everything you do or don’t do can affect your brain. It’s neither too early nor too late to start a brain-healthy habit.”
These cognitive pursuits promote healthy aging and may prevent or delay some diseases:
Let the games begin
The card game of bridge is considered a cerebral sport because it teaches you logic, reasoning, quick thinking, patience, concentration and partnership skills.
A study at the University of California, Berkeley, found evidence that an area in the brain used in playing bridge stimulates the immune system. Researchers suggest that is because players must use memory and sequencing.
According to Joyce Mikal-Flynn, a nurse practitioner and neuroscience professor at Sacramento State University, “Board games, card games, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles and matching games — all are creative and fun, which support brain health and wellness. Being fun brings forth more motivation to participate. And these activities are even better when engaging with others and being social. Interacting with others through teamwork is extremely helpful for brain health.”
You can also add a twist to your games for more memory improvement. For example, if you play Jenga, where you take turns removing a block from a tower while trying not to topple it, add a step where each player answers a trivia question or responds to someone in the group about a current event.
Research shows that physical activity for as little as 30 minutes several times a week can benefit the brain, and that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Staying active can also help your brain by keeping the blood flowing and increasing the chemicals that protect it. “Physical activity can build brain cells, improve memory and keep you sharp,” says Mikal-Flynn. “It can also reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes, which has been found to be an independent risk factor for dementia.”
Fitness shouldn’t just be for the body. Establishing a mental fitness routine is equally important, says Culler. “Weekly brain engagement for a minimum of at least two hours, which is around 15 to 20 minutes per day, has benefits for aging adults.”
The mental fitness exercise should be new, novel and challenging. For example, to gain additional benefits from reading, try a different section of the newspaper than you typically would or choose a new periodical. Read various sections out loud to activate different areas of your brain, and read with the intent to share the information with a friend. You will process the information differently, says Culler.
Reducing stress is not only good for heart health but also brain health. The stress hormone cortisol can compromise the brain when stressors are chronic.
For example, studies show that the hippocampus (a structure embedded deep in the temporal lobe that has a major role in learning and memory) is more likely to shrink if cortisol binds to it for long periods of time.
A brain-healthy way to lower stress is coloring. “Coloring increases the release of dopamine, a feel-good hormone, and removes your stress by taking your mind away from the difficult times,” says Olga Horvat, a color therapist and founder of Royal Dogs Gallery, which offers workshops and books on meditative coloring.
Culler also recommends setting aside time daily to “cool your brain,” and practice mindfulness. “Meditation is an excellent brain workout, and studies have found numerous benefits for the brain,” Culler adds. “If meditation is not a daily part of your routine, aim to add it in.” Start with a few minutes per day and then work your way up to longer intervals.
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