I’ve heard over and over (and you may have also) that as we age our brains work less and less. It’s more a matter of us being set in our ways and not really doing anything that challenges or stimulates us mentally (and getting out of bed in the morning does not count). The key term here is called neuroplasticity, which basically means with the right stimulation your brain (which I also consider kind of like a muscle), can change and grow and form new neural pathways. Those pathways are the things that send information from your brain to every location of your body.
According to sharecare.com, “The brain’s incredible ability to reshape itself holds true when it comes to learning and memory.” Medical research has shown that we can the corral the power of neuroplasticity to increase our cognitive abilities, enhance our ability to learn new information, and improve our memory at any age (great news to me, personally, because I need to find my car keys when I wrap this up).
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
Key point to remember: No matter how intellectually demanding the activity, if it’s something you’re already good at, it’s not a good brain exercise! According to psychologytoday.com, “The activity needs to be something that’s unfamiliar and out of your comfort zone. To strengthen the brain, you need to keep learning and developing new skills.”
But wait, it gets better.
“The best brain-boosting activities demand your full and close attention”, says fitbrain.com. It’s not enough that you found the activity challenging at one point. It must still be something that requires mental effort. For example, making a ceramic bowl would count because it’s not the same as making a ceramic plate (which you already knew how to do).
Sharecare recommends seeking activities “that allow you to start at an easy level and work your way up as your skills improve.” In that way, you continue to stretch your capabilities. Another way of looking at it is when a previously difficult level starts to feel comfortable, that means it’s time to tackle the next level of difficulty.
At the end of the day, it’s all about challenging yourself with something new. Learn a foreign language, play an instrument or sodoku, tap dance. The list goes on and on. Any new activity can help you improve your memory, so long as it keeps you challenged and engaged.
[Don’t] Slack Off Physically
So I think you understand now why mental exercise is important for brain health, but more and more research is showing that physical exercise keeps the brain sharp as well. Exercise, points out psychologytoday.com, “Increases oxygen to your brain and reduces the risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.” Perhaps more importantly, exercise also enhances the effects of helpful brain chemicals and reduces stress hormones. And getting back to what we were saying early on about neuroplasticity, exercise helps boost growth factors and stimulates new neuronal connections.
Physical activities that require hand-eye coordination or complex motor skills are particularly beneficial for brain building. Work out the mind as well as the body and you’ll be doing your brain a world of good.
Now about those car keys I misplaced. …
Photo: National Institutes of Health
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