Just as keeping physically fit is important as we age, so is keeping mentally fit. More research is being done on how adults can work out their “mental muscles” to keep their minds sharp and possibly put off or avoid the onset Alzheimer’s and dementia.
1. Engage in physical exercise
Surprised that physical exercise tops the list? You shouldn’t be. Exercise is arguably the single most effective way to keep the mind sharp and the memory strong. Any type of physical exercise that gets the heart rate up is good for the brain as well as the body.
Among its many benefits to the brain, exercise leads to increases in the size of the hippocampus, which is crucial for memory consolidation and navigation. Interestingly, the hippocampus is one of the first brain structures to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Brisk walking, swimming, cycling, and weight lifting are all good choices for physical exercise in seniors. The CDC recommends that adults over 65 engage in 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week, the equivalent of a 20-minute walk every day.
2. Learn something new
The brain loves to learn, and active learning of new skills forces the brain to make new connections.
The key here is “new.” It’s a challenge to learn new things, and that challenge is what brings the most benefit to the brain. This might include learning how to play an instrument, play a new card game, quilt or crochet, make jewelry, use a digital camera, or speak a new language, to name just a few.
3. Maintain social connections
Maintaining social connections is not just good for our emotional health, but for our physical and mental health, too. Lack of contact with other people can lead to excess stress hormones, which can impair memory by affecting sleep cycles and the hippocampus. It can also cause depression and anxiety, both of which impair cognition and memory.
This is a particular problem for seniors. Their social circle may shrink after they retire from work or stop going out much due to health reasons. Seniors should make a point to actively maintain social connections by attending events like classes, clubs, and religious services. Homebound seniors should take advantage of technology to keep in touch with friends and family via email, video chat, and the phone.
One great way to get social interaction is to take up dance lessons. Not only do you spend time with other people, you also get the brain benefits of physical exercise and of learning a new skill.
What about puzzles?
Crossword puzzles, sudokus, and “brain training games” are a lot of fun, but research isn’t conclusive about whether they actually have a positive long-term effect on the brain and help stave off Alzheimer’s. However, if you enjoy them, it can’t hurt.
Go ahead – make some plans for the New Year to start building your mental muscles!