When it comes to our brains, it’s use ’em or lose ’em. No matter how clever we are, or how many degrees or fancy titles we have, none of that can prevent us from losing our memory and other mental abilities later in life. Our brains—just like our bodies—need exercise in order to stay sharp and healthy.
When we exercise our brains, we activate nerve cells and cause them to make their own “fertilizer.” This fertilizer, or brain reserve, strengthens nerve cells, keeping them resistant to the assaults of old age. Steve Gillman of IncreaseBrainPower.com, has been studying brainpower and related topics for years. Gillman explained, “Learning new things and doing basic brain exercises produces new neurons and new connections between the neurons of the brain. This is referred to as neuroplasticity, and the idea that you can continue to improve the brain—or at least slow the normal brain function decline associated with age—is now considered a scientific fact.”
Gillman mentioned recent research conducted by Dr. Joe Verghese and his colleagues at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Working with Syracuse University, Verghese and his team studied 469 subjects who were seventy-five years old or older. They found that mental exercise such as reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing reduced the incidence (or delayed the onset) of dementia of many types, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Health experts also recommend eating brain-healthy foods, getting lots of exercise, and having full, uninterrupted sleep each night. However, for those of us who live somewhat imperfectly, but still want to keep our minds sharp, these simple exercises may be just what the doctor ordered … or even better.
Do the opposite.
Giving our dominant hand a rest ignites our neural pathways. Experts recommend using our opposite hand for brushing our teeth and hair, drinking our coffee, playing with our iPod, or any other activities where we usually use our dominant hand. We may feel a little uncoordinated, but we’ll be more focused concentrating on the activity rather than robotically going through the moves.
Eat protein for breakfast.
Eating a decent breakfast is essential and increases our brainpower for the day ahead. Think high-protein and high-fiber. Beans, for example, offer the biggest brain boost out there, so make like the British and have some beans on toast in the morning. Eggs are also ideal because they’re rich in choline, a nutrient our bodies use to produce neurotransmitters. Junk food has been connected to a number of ailments including attention deficit disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia, so we should avoid its temptation as much as possible.
Read out loud.
When we read out loud, our brain is forced to process information twice. First, there’s comprehension of the text, and second, we must remember how to make the right sounds for each word. This gives our brain the type of exercise it can’t get from reading silently. Another bonus is that over time, it will become easier to make speeches, announcements, and tell stories in a social setting. If you want to take it even further, try singing out loud. It will ignite the creative side of your brain and it may actually help you sing better. Try karaoke or play rock star in the shower.
Play online brain games.
Online brain games are fantastic for improving our brain’s speed and memory; plus, they’re fun. GamesfortheBrain is a favorite of mine, but the classics like Sudoku and crossword puzzles are also excellent. Even as little as fifteen minutes a day of cognitive exercise can help our brain generate new cells, so consider adding a few games to your lunch break at work, or at the end of the day to wind down. There are dozens of sites out there with engaging games, so do some exploring to find some that are challenging and enjoyable to you.
Step out of your element.
Changing our surroundings often and stepping out of our comfort zones will also boost brain activity as our minds process our new surroundings or activities. Even activities as simple as shopping at a new grocery store, rearranging our desk at the office, or redecorating a bedroom can get us out of a brain rut. The novelty of stepping outside of our element is beneficial not only to our brain, but also to our overall wellness.
Be a student for life.
Learning a musical instrument, a foreign language, or any new skill for that matter, does wonders for our brain. When we learn a new language, for example, our brain uses multiple areas, from storage and retrieval to auditory and language center connections. A study from the University College London examined the brains of 105 people, eighty of whom were bilingual, and found that learning other languages altered grey matter, the area of the brain that processes information, similar to the way physical exercise builds muscles. Use the internet as your teacher—iTunes has dozens of foreign language podcasts and YouTube has thousands of musical lesson tutorials.
Exercise cures all.
A study by the American Academy of Neurology gives us yet another reason to exercise (as if we need more). The study found: “People with early Alzheimer’s disease who were less physically fit had four times more brain shrinkage when compared to normal, older adults than those who were more physically fit, suggesting less brain shrinkage related to the Alzheimer’s disease process in those with higher fitness levels.” Experts recommend that adults get thirty minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Building fitness into everyday life helps prevent heart disease, diabetes, and now, helps strengthen our mind as we age. Try walking or cycling to work, choose the stairs over the elevator, do chores more often, dance while you do chores … anything that gets your body moving. Lazy body = lazy brain.
The bottom line is that memory is not a given; it’s a skill that can be developed and strengthened. No matter what age we are, doing brain exercises now will help us reap the short-term benefits (improved memory and concentration), as well as long-term benefits (protection against future age-related problems). Make time for cognitive fitness—your future self will thank you.
Updated July 24, 2009