When Arthur Pollakoff, 83, of Glenview, Illinois, retired as a salesman six years ago, he made a pledge. “I promised myself that I would not sit down, dry up, and blow away,” says Pollakoff, a grandfather of four who plays tennis regularly and presides over a local men’s club, among other activities. Experts say Pollakoff has the right idea. Keeping your mind sharp may go a long way toward warding off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, but maintaining your brain means more than challenging yourself intellectually. Exercise, healthy eating, and socializing are critical as well. The following brain-healthy activities can get you started.
# 1 Take a walk
Regular physical activity is closely linked to cognitive health. What is good for the heart is good for the brain, says Debra Katt-Lloyd, a presenter and trainer for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Maintain Your Brain program. Lowering your risk for heart disease and stroke also can reduce your chances of developing dementia. But the best news is that “exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous or a major time commitment,” Katt-Lloyd says. Regular thirty-minute sessions of biking, gardening, yoga, or walking can be effective as time at the gym.
It’s simple enough—and could have long- lasting benefits. Staying socially connected is believed to play a major role in brain health, Katt-Lloyd says. There appear to be two reasons. First, it keeps the mind working, because conversation strengthens the connections between brain cells. Second, socializing may help stimulate mood-boosting brain chemicals and decrease depression, which is a key risk factor for dementia.
# 3 Learn something new
Keeping your mind active is important. But you don’t have to spend your day solving Sudoku puzzles to see results. Real brain fitness is about “learning something new that requires focused concentration,” says Mary Futrell, Director of Lifelong Learning for the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield, Ill. It could be mastering salsa, studying American history, or learning how to paint, as long as you haven’t done it before.
# 4 Cook with your kids
Eating right will help keep you sharp—and it can be social, too, when you invite the kids into the kitchen with you. Ask them to help you prepare new dishes that call for dark-skin fruits and vegetables, such as kale, spinach, blueberries, and strawberries. These have high levels of natural antioxidants—good for you and for the children. Entrees featuring cold-water fish are also wise choices. Halibut, mackerel, salmon, trout, and tuna contain brain-beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts are a good between-meal snack—they’re good sources of the antioxidant Vitamin E.
# 5 Play the Wii
Pollakoff plays tennis twice a week, but he engages in virtual tennis matches as well. The popular Nintendo Wii game system lets players mimic the motions of sports like tennis, baseball, bowling, and boxing without leaving their living rooms. “As entertaining as it is for children,” Pollakoff says, “I think it is so very important for seniors because instead of becoming poster boys and girls for couch potatoes it gets them moving about.” Various game systems, including Nintendo’s handheld GameBoy DS, have also introduced games like Brain Age, which focuses on sharpening skills such as memory, word, calculation, and problem-solving, instead of just killing zombies and aliens.
# 6 Get to the brain gym
A small but growing number of “brain gyms” have opened around the country, where those eager for a cranial workout use computers to put themselves through a strenuous circuit of mental exercises designed to boost their “neuroplasticity,” or the brain’s ability to create new neural connections, and ward off the effects of dementia. Companies like Posit Science and CogniFit create these computer-based programs as part of what has become an $80 million annual industry in this country alone. The programs build in complexity for each user over repeated workouts.
# 7 Help a kid with their homework
It’s not cheating, and you may be doing yourself a favor along with the kids. Helping children with schoolwork may force you to unearth long-buried equations or recall French vocabulary, and even push you to think critically about a piece of literature. Which is all good—for your cognitive health and your relationship with your favorite kids.
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Originally published on Grandparents