Most of us think our aging brains are at the mercy of fate and genetics. But, scientists have a new theory of how the brain works that opens up wonderful new possibilities.
The brain responds dramatically to how we treat it. Just as you can improve your body and dodge diseases with good nutrition and regular workouts, you can also protect your brain and delay mental decline with regular mental exercise. The idea is to develop a surplus of brain cells and neural connections now that you can make use of later as the brain ages. You can literally build a “brain reserve” throughout your life that will help protect you from decline later in life.
According to a growing body of scientific research, many cognitive problems can be delayed, prevented, or even reversed through physical and mental effort. Physical exercise helps blood flow to the brain, which improves brain function. It may also help to grow neurons—nerve cells that enable a person to think. Experts say the best way to stave off mental decline is to stay physically, mentally, and socially active.
The benefits of physical exercise extend beyond just getting “fit.” Physical exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, which has been linked to numerous diseases and illnesses. We all know how to exercise—when is the greater challenge, for most of us. Finding a routine that suits your lifestyle can help you stay disciplined. You don’t necessarily have to go to the gym or spend money on exercise equipment. Use of the sidewalk is free, so take advantage of the pavement and take a walk. Pass up the elevator and climb the stairs. Instead of just sitting in front of the television, do simple stretching exercises during the commercial breaks. Do what you can to stay physically active every day and your body will benefit in the long run.
Entertain Your Mind to Keep It Sharp
A mental workout can be much more entertaining than you might imagine. You don’t need to study physics and chemistry to get a mental workout. Instead, you should focus on those areas that are already of interest to you. If you love to read detective stories, go ahead. If you’re a gardener, you may want to spend some time researching new plant varieties for your spring planting. Are you a puzzle solver? The weekly crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper is a great challenge, even for the most avid game players. Forgo an hour or two of television each day and read—it can be a popular magazine or one of the great classics. Getting a good mental workout does not mean you have to toil over dusty tomes in the library. Instead, focus on the topics you take pleasure in already, and expand your knowledge that way.
If you should have some physical limitation that makes it hard for you to engage in certain activities, be creative. If failing eyesight is holding you back, buy or rent audio books for many hours of entertaining mental stimulation. Spend time with your grandchildren and join them in their games of make-believe. You can get mental stimulation in countless ways, so put on your thinking cap and try a few.
Social Activity for Optimum Mental Stimulation
As people get older, their social circles may get smaller—friends often move or pass away. At older ages, it can also be hard to go out and make new friends. But, to remain mentally fit, it’s important that you maintain some level of daily social interaction. You could join clubs and discussion groups or volunteer some of your time to drive people to medical appointments, work in a food pantry, or tutor children.
Again, it is important to engage in the type of social activity that you enjoy—if it seems like a chore, then choose something else to do until you find something that feels right. It’s easier than you think. For example, by simply walking to the coffee shop and striking up a conversation with somebody, you have covered all three bases. Staying physically fit, mentally active, and socially involved will keep you happier and healthier and improve the quality of your life.