Published on: June 5, 2012
by Tam Cummings for Untangling Dementia:
As researchers learn more about how the brain functions, they are more certain than ever that staying mentally active is a key ingredient of aging well. Research from the National Institute of Aging and its Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the Nun Study, the Cambridge-based Cognitive Function and Ageing Study and others all point to the same thing: Use it or lose it!
Mental exercise isn’t going to stop dementia from happening, but it does appear to alter the course a bit for some individuals. According to researchers from the University of Sydney, “Maintaining a more mentally ‘switched-on’ lifestyle over many years may lead to structural benefits in the brain towards the end of life.”
In light of these revelations, here are seven top cognitive exercises for your brain:
1. Dancing: This activity exercises the brain as well as the body. Dancing requires all four lobes of your brain to focus and coordinate movement between large muscle groups in time with the beat of music, all while performing sequences of steps. Coordinating dance steps with a partner makes for an even greater challenge for the brain.
2. Competitive Games: Playing card games, board games and dominoes are wonderful activities that get the brain into action. Poker, bridge, blackjack and other card games, for example, require your brain to pay attention to colors, suits and numbers. Game playing also requires the brain to observe the behaviors of others and draw inferences from those behaviors as well as make judgments about moves of others.
3. Musical Instruments: Playing an instrument lights up the entire the brain as it must interpret written music notations and then move fingers and hands (and maybe even feet for the percussionist) in reaction to what it has seen. Even if you’re just learning the harmonica or dulcimer and reading notes through a tab system, your brain is getting a workout.
4. Riddles and Puzzles: Number games, word games, crossword puzzles and picture puzzles will excite and challenge your brain. To complete these tasks, the brain has to draw inferences, add and subtract, jump ahead in cognition, imagine, and use higher functioning – all good things for brain health.
5. Google: Using Google or another Internet search engine is a terrific way to keep the neurons in the brain firing. Often when you look up information online, the search results will lead you to look up something else, then those results lead to something else, and so on and so on. As you learn new things, your memory files continue to grow, leading to more brain tissue and thicker, richer dendritic growth in the cellular structures.
6. Walk. Whether you take a hike or just stroll around the block, being outside and moving ramps up the brain. Vision, memory, coordination, imagination, touch, smell and more are all used during even a brief walk. The sounds of birds singing or squirrels chattering, the feel of a cool breeze or the hot sun, the sight of a crack in the sidewalk and the color of the leaves all provide an abundance of stimulation for the brain.
7. Reading. To keep the brain challenged, expand beyond your usual reading favorites. New stories and authors introduce you to new words, concepts, ideas, characters and places – all which help form new connections in the brain.
If you are able to work several of these mental gymnastics into each day, you’re well on the road to preserving your mental fitness for as long as possible.
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