Working in Canada’s largest mental health and addictions hospital, I get to talk about one of my favourite things on a daily basis: brain health. To be blunt, the vast majority of patients don’t appreciate the impact that their choices have on the health of their brains like they do other organs. People ‘get’ that smoking is bad for their heart and lungs and that alcohol and Tylenol can do a real number on their liver but most don’t understand, or give much thought to, the most complex structure in the known universe; the human brain.
Of course nutrition is hugely important when it comes to giving our noggin the TLC it deserves; what we eat and drink affects the structure of the brain and structure affects/influences function but what about ‘exercise’? I’m not talking about physical activity. We know exercise is good for our grey matter but is there a way that we can exercise our neurons like we can exercise our muscles?
Give your brain a workout
People are pleasantly surprised to learn that they CAN give their brain a workout and that with the right kind of training, they can enhance their cognitive reserve; the idea of a person’s capacity to maintain normal cognitive function in the presence of brain pathology or cognitive decline. Training the brain helps it to be adaptable, to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done when cognitive/thinking demands are placed upon it. This can overcome the decline in ‘brain power’ if you will, that is part of the normal aging process.
In other words, as with any body part, use it or lose it
How do you exercise your brain?
Those who have given it some thought wonder if they can maintain their ability to think as they age by stimulating their brains through ‘intellectual’ activities. This is a tempting idea and almost intuitive; brain teasers such as puzzles and online games, force us to think right? This ideas has given rise to heaps of ‘brain games’ but when we drill down into the real research, things aren’t that simple.
Check out the infographic: Debunking Myths About The Aging Brain
The evidence for the benefits of what most think of as ‘brain games’ is weak to non-existence. What does happens when you play brain games is that you become better at that game but, improvements in a given game performance have not been shown to maintain or improve day-to-day cognitive abilities.
Don’t get me wrong, games etc. are fun and an important part of being socially engaged WHICH DOES promote good health and good brain health, but games don’t improve cognitive reserve. The good news is that cognitively stimulating activities that are mentally engaging, that challenge your ability to think, can provide benefit to your brain. While it’s never too late to start, starting sooner will give you more bang for your cognitive buck. Mentally engaging and mentally challenging your ability to think over your lifespan will make you less susceptible to the effects of age.
This is great news. For decades it was thought that we are born with a set number of neurons (brain cells) and that was it, but the brain is very dynamic and is constantly changing AND you can actually impact how your brain changes. It continues to develop new neurons and new connections between neurons in many different brain regions. The other good news is that these activities are things that many people are already doing for work and/or their leisure time; it’s more a matter of being purposeful in pursuing those activities and ‘getting with the program’ versus having to go out and do something extraordinary or radical.
So how do you get started?
1) Find new ways to stimulate your brain. Novelty is important to continually challenge the brain and is an element in what makes even routine cognitive activities interesting and challenging.
2) Engage your brain along with someone else. Pick a skill or hobby that you want to learn and find a mentor, friend, or companion to help you do it. Social aspects of activities that challenge your brain can help inspire you to continue your efforts. If being with other people motivates you as it does for many people, join a group activity.
3) Choose an activity that you enjoy. This will make it easier to stay motivated and committed over time.
4) Make it easy on yourself. Select activities which fit in well with your schedule and are easily accessible so you can stay engaged in the activity.
Check out the infographic: Challenge Your Brain With Cognitively Stimulating Activities
5) Aim for purposeful (deliberate) practice. This will help you to improve performance over time. If you are taking up a new challenging hobby such as learning a new musical instrument or learning a new language, feedback from an instructor, coach or mentor can give you encouragement and keep you learning.
6) Find an activity where someone will notice whether you are present. Someone who checks up on you if you miss a session can be an additional motivating factor to keep you going.
7) Use life stages and transitions to change things up. Think about the changes in your life as you age, such as moving, changing careers, or retiring as opportunities to try new forms of cognitive stimulation. Maybe the new neighborhood has glass-blowing classes, hiking trails, or a different music group to try out.
8) Study something you are interested in. Enroll in continuing education classes at a local community college or university. Set achievable goals, enjoy the process, and reward yourself along the way with something you find relaxing in order to gradually increase your involvement in the activity.
GCBH’s complete report on this topic here: Engage Your Brain – GCBH Recommendations on Cognitively Stimulating Activities
9) Choose activities involving both mental and physical engagement. Physical activity has been shown to improve cognition in adults, so choosing activities such as dancing or tennis that involve both mental engagement and physical exercise is a wise use of your time.
10) Find ways to re-engage in old activities that you once found to be cognitively stimulating which you may have given up. These may help to promote sustained interest and resurface enjoyable memories.
11) Don’t let age limit the scope of your cognitively stimulating activities or intellectual life. Your attitude plays an important role and can shape outcomes even when there are physical limitations to overcome.
12) Be realistic, there is no miracle to guarantee brain health.