By now most of us know that physical activity is an important way to protect our memory and thinking. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, helps us maintain a healthy weight, and promotes a healthy heart, blood pressure and sleep quality—all of which lower our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other conditions that affect our brain health.
But what about so-called “brain exercise”? Many companies today market special computer programs and games designed to help seniors build their cognitive skills. Studies show these may be of some benefit. But experts assure us that many other enjoyable activities also provide the kind of brain stimulation that builds important connections in the brain.
So if you’re looking for some “brain aerobics” that are just plain fun, how about trying…
Creating a work of art. Many studies show taking part in painting, drawing, quilting, pottery, knitting, photography and any other creative art form or craft project you enjoy can improve your cognitive function. Leaning a new skill is especially useful to keep us sharp. If you’ve always enjoyed painting, why not try computer-based art or sculpting?
Musical activities. In January 2017, University of Pennsylvania researchers reported, “Taking music lessons in your 60s or older can boost your brain’s health, helping to decrease loss of memory and cognitive function.” So, buy a harmonica, take piano lessons, join a community choir or load up your music player with new tunes to give your mind a boost. Dancing also provides good mental exercise, along with the physical kind.
Acting. Amateur theater, anyone? In 2016, Elmhurst College faculty members Helga and Tony Noice stated, “The more stimulation you offer the brain, the more you increase the chances that the brain will remain healthy throughout your life. The acting process produces a particularly high degree of stimulation. An actor needs to be engaged on many levels: emotional, physical, and intellectual. All of this complex activity appears to alter neural connections in the brain.”
Games. Cards, board games and party favorites like charades all give those brain cells a workout. Studies show that video games, too, can be protective against cognitive decline. Yes, hundreds of research subjects got to play Angry Birds and World of Warcraft in the interest of science! And here’s great news for the millions of seniors who love bingo: According to research from Case Western University, that old favorite provides mental exercise and improves thinking skills, even when a person has Alzheimer’s disease.
Caring for a pet. Contact with animals offers emotional benefits, encourages socialization and decreases stress. Dog owners have a built-in incentive to go for brisk, brain-boosting walks. And spending time with animals reduces loneliness, an emotion that is so stressful that it can damage our brains. Even watching fish in an aquarium lowers the level of brain-damaging hormones in our body.
Not on the list
One activity that doesn’t help our brain so much: watching TV. Several studies show that seniors who watch more than a few hours of TV each day harm their health—and that includes their cognitive well-being. TV watching is a passive activity that requires us to do few mental gymnastics. So get off the couch and spend more time creating, thinking and learning—and having fun!
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor about a brain exercise regimen that’s right for you.