It is estimated that by the year 2050, dementia will impact more than 115 million people (Godman), and the Alzheimer’s Association reports that every 66 seconds, someone in the United States is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Now more than ever, it is time to pay attention to the ways lifestyle habits impact brain health. While we can’t stop or turn back the clock on Father Time, we can consciously make changes to support cognitive function. Here are five ways to flex your brain muscles, and how to have fun doing it!
Learn a Musical Instrument
If you haven’t picked up an instrument since banging on pots and pans as a toddler, there are many benefits to picking up the practice again. Musicians are required to multitask, which employs both hemispheres of the brain. Such brain exercise sharpens cognitive skills by engaging “memory and recall, hand-eye coordination, and listening skills” (Music to Your Mind). A study conducted on individuals aged 65-80 at the University of South Florida observed the cognitive skills of those who received 6 months of piano lessons compared to a group who did not receive lessons. The group that completed the lessons demonstrated improved ability to plan, process information, and memory (Music to Your Mind).
“But I can’t read music!” If you can’t read music, it’s never too late to learn. If music lessons aren’t in your price range, free apps, printable sheet music, and YouTube video lessons are all available online to start with. Don’t forget to listen to your favorite music to get inspired!
Make Time to Read
A survey conducted in 2016 found that a quarter of adults in the US haven’t read a whole book in the last year. That equals a lot of Americans missing out on the benefits reading has on the brain. Reading a challenging book or article can improve your vocabulary and knowledge, which in turn builds social bridges to stimulate intellectual conversation. Reading also exercises the brain in that it requires you to use your memory, both short and long-term, to remember characters, history, sub-plots, and statistics. In turn, this generates a response from your analytical skills as you sort out the details, also requiring you to focus and concentrate.
If you think reading isn’t the hobby for you, reassess what it is you don’t like about it. Nobody says you have to hunker down with War and Peace every night. The key to enjoying reading is to find something you are interested in, even if it’s a short article from a magazine or blog. Set aside quiet time daily to read about something that interests you, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
Learn Another Language
Most people develop the desire to learn another language only when traveling to another country, but this activity is very beneficial to brain health. It is a lot more than memorization: becoming bilingual requires focus, patience, and multitasking as the brain processes information in your native language first, and switches to the second language during translation. A 2012 Swedish research report suggests that learning another language improves brain development after studying MRI results on two groups of students: one group studied languages, while the other group studied other subjects (Lund University).
Thanks to modern technology, it is easier and more fun than ever thanks to game-based language apps like Mindsnacks and Duolingo.
Thanks to modern technology, it is easier and more fun than ever thanks to game-based language apps like Mindsnacks and Duolingo. If apps aren’t your thing, head to your local library and check out the selection of language books there before investing in another tool: language-learning software.
Write it Down
Writing is a therapeutic and freeing activity, as it allows you to unleash all of your thoughts on paper, and clarifies emotions that get jumbled up inside. Sorting out these thoughts and the simple act of getting them out of your system is a way to reduce stress, and a creative way to solve and understand problems. The best part is that nobody has to read what you wrote unless you share it. Burn the pages in a summer bonfire, delete the file from your computer, or put it through the paper shredder if you don’t want anyone to see it. What you do with your writing is completely in your control.
Need a prompt? Start telling your life story. This will require you to use your memory and organization skills. If you’re feeling down about what you have not yet accomplished (or may never accomplish), looking back at accomplishments from the past will provide a boost of self-esteem. It may even bring family relationships closer as they gain a newfound interest in your stories.
Get and Stay Active
Most of us know that being physically active benefits our bodies, but it also has a big impact on our minds. The hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory, emotions, and learning, receives a boost during aerobic exercise (Godman). Daily stress has a negative impact on our moods, causing sleep problems and an inability to concentrate, two problems that aerobic exercise may reduce. The Mayo Clinic recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, which is just 30 minutes 5 days per week.
For some, exercise is easier said than done. If 30 minutes a day seems daunting, forget the number and focus on simply being active by doing something you enjoy. Mowing the lawn, dancing, yoga, and swimming are all low-impact activities to consider.
If 30 minutes a day seems daunting, forget the number and focus on simply being active by doing something you enjoy.
- “2017 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.” Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org/facts/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.
- Godman, Heidi. “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills.” Harvard Health Publications, 9 Apr. 2014, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.
- “Language learning makes the brain grow, Swedish study suggests.” Science Daily, 8 Oct. 2012, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121008082953.htm. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.
- “Music to your mind: learning an instrument can reverse the aging effects on the brain.” Healthy Years, Vol. 12, No. 8, 2015, p. 3. Academic OneFile, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=lom_deltacoll&v=2.1&id=
Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.
- Perrin, Andrew. “Methodology.” Pew Research, 1 Sept. 2016, www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016-methodology/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.