Healthy weight, physical fitness and nutrition are essential as you age. But did you realize they can also help your brain?
In many ways, the mind is still a scientific mystery and we are constantly trying to understand it more. One thing is certain though: your brain can deteriorate if you don’t take care of it. Keeping it healthy will not only help you in your day-to-day activities, but also it can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or other memory problems. The Alzheimer’s Association, Johns Hopkins Health Alerts, and the American Society on Aging are three great resources for information and studies on this important topic.
Here are some easy ways to challenge your brain so it stays strong:
Reading benefits your mind and memory in ways that watching TV doesn’t. The Mayo Clinic Study of Aging found that reading books (in addition to other cognitive activities) can lead to a 50 percent decrease in your chances of developing dementia. Try to open a book for at least half an hour every day. If you find it difficult to read for long periods of time, spread it out over the day or read short stories.
- Go Back-to-school
If you live near a college, university, community college or adult education center, see what your options are for taking classes. Sitting in a classroom and listening and observing can be a fantastic way to learn and test your mind — and make you feel young again! Many colleges even offer scholarships, tuition waivers or discounts for seniors.
- Play Games and Puzzles
The mind-benders you play with your kids or grandkids aren’t just entertaining — they are good for your brain. According to a study in the Archives of Neurology, playing games can help prevent Alzheimer’s. Even a few minutes a day can improve your creativity, memory and decision-making abilities. So pull out an old jigsaw puzzle or open up a magazine or newspaper and try the crossword puzzle or a Sudoku. If you’re with friends or family, do some card or board games together as a group. Even strategy-based video games can have a beneficial effect on your brain.
- Pick up an Instrument
Whether you have fond memories of those piano lessons you took as a child, or you’ve never even seen a sheet of music, now is a great time to sign up for music lessons. Recent studies show that after only four months of playing an instrument an hour a week, seniors experienced improvements in the areas of the brain that control hearing, memory and hand movement. So tune your brain and look into private or group adult music classes through community programs, conservatories with extension programs or even music stores.
Put down the keyboard and pick up a pencil. A study from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience shows that handwriting helps stimulate the areas of the brain that deal with thinking, language and memory. Write about memories you have, what’s going on around you, something you saw recently or just let your creative juices flow and make up a story.
It’s a myth that you need less sleep as you age. When you sleep, your brain has a chance to relax and process everything you did and learned that day. But a study in the Journal of Neuroscience says that as you get older, your brain has difficulty forming these short term memories during sleep. To help prevent this memory loss, you need to sleep — and sleep well — for at least seven or eight hours a night. See a doctor if you’re having trouble drifting off, as it may be due to health problems, anxiety or even your medication. Or you may just need to change up your sleep routine with some easy tips.
You know you’re supposed to exercise. There’s no getting around it. But did you know that it’s not only good for your body — it’s also good for your brain? Researchers from the University of Arizona have found that aerobic exercise can help combat the effects of an aging on your brain. Physical exercise helps blood flow to your brain, and can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, along with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Whether it’s walking, yard work or yoga, do 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day.
- Eat Healthfully
Scientists have determined that the brain needs the right balance of nutrients to operate well. Numerous studies have proven that a high intake of fats and cholesterol is associated with higher risk for Alzheimer’s. Stay away from fried foods and eat more dark fruits and vegetables, fish, lean proteins and nuts. Start with these 18 Quick and Easy Meals for Seniors.
Gathering with a group of friends on a regular basis is not only fun, but also it can help your brain stay sharp. Research published in the May 2012 journal of Experimental Gerontology shows that social relationships can heal aging brains and keep them young. So host a weekly lunch for friends, volunteer at a nearby charity or join local activity groups through your community center or online sites like Meetup. And if you need even more encouragement, people who sustain close friendships and continue to socialize live longer than people who become isolated, says the Yale Medical Center.
The key to maintaining your brain’s health is engagement. Through mental, physical and social activity, your brain will stay busy. And developing a routine combining the three can put you at a lower risk for disease and keep your mind sharp as you get older.