What's good for your body is good for your brain. That means eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and veggies and not much sugar, saturated fat, or alcohol, as well as getting enough exercise and sleeping about eight hours a night. But evidence is accumulating that a whole host of other activities can help keep our brains young even as we advance in chronological age. There is no one magic activity that you need to take on, but trying a handful of the following will help.
Seniors who danced three to four times a week—especially those who ballroom danced—had a 75% lower risk of dementia compared with people who did not dance at all, found a 2003 landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Why? "Dancing is a complex activity," says study lead author Joe Verghese, MD, chief of geriatrics at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "It's aerobic so it improves blood flow to the brain which has been shown to improve brain connections. It also provides mental challenges." While it can be hard to prove cause and effect (people with dementia may cut back on activities), the study enrolled people without dementia and followed them over time.
Whether it's the saxophone, the piano, or a ukulele, researchers found that playing an instrument for 10 or more years was correlated with better memory in advanced age compared to those who played music for less than 10 years (or not at all). Other research shows that even listening to music can help boost your brainpower. A study from the Stanford University School of Medicine found that listening to baroque music (Vivaldi, Bach) leads to changes in the brain that help with attention and storing events into memory.
Being bilingual may help delay the onset of dementia. Individuals who spoke two languages developed dementia an average of four and a half years later than people who only spoke one language in a 2013 study published in the journal Neurology. Other research shows that people who speak more than one language are better at multitasking and paying attention. Experts say the earlier you learn, the better—growing up speaking two languages is optimal—but that it's never too late and every little of language learning helps.
Playing chess, bingo, checkers, and card games may help keep your brain fit. A 2013 French study found a 15% lower risk of dementia among people who played board games versus those who did not. And the effects seemed to last over the study's 20-year follow-up. "The idea is that this helps build cognitive reserve," says Dr. Verghese, whose study also found benefits to playing board games like Monopoly. "The more these activities buffer against the disease, you may be able to mask the effects of the disease for longer periods of time. It buys you extra time."
Reading, in general, is good for the brain. But reading fewer books and articles so you can give them each of them more focused attention may be even better. "Our brain doesn't do very well with too much information. The more you download, the more it shuts the brain down," says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. "It's better to read one or two good articles and think about them in a deeper sense rather than read 20."
Next time you have to read through some documents for work, consider changing the typeface before you print them out. Chances are, the docs came to you in an easy-to-read font like Arial or Times New Roman, but switching it to something a little less legible like Comic Sans or Bodoni may improve your comprehension and recall of the information, according to a small study out of Harvard University. Likewise, a study at a Ohio high school revealed that students who received handouts with less-legible type performed better on tests than the students who were given more readable materials. It's a version of the no-pain-no-gain phenomenon: When you exert more effort, your brain rewards you by becoming stronger. But make sure you keep things new by changing fonts regularly.
If you think your ability to multitask proves you've got a strong brain, think again. "Multitasking hijacks your frontal lobe," says Chapman, who is also the author of Make Your Brain Smarter. The frontal lobe regulates decision-making, problem-solving, and other aspects of learning that are critical to maintaining brain health. Research has shown that doing one thing at a time—not everything at once—strengthens higher-order reasoning, or the ability to learn, understand, and apply new information.
In one study, college students who wrote about stressful experiences for 20 minutes three days in a row improved their working memories and their grade point averages. Students who wrote about neutral events saw no such improvements. "We hypothesized that stress causes unwanted, intrusive thoughts," says study co-author Adriel Boals, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Texas in Denton. "Writing gets rid of intrusive thoughts then working memory increases." If something's bothering you, don't bottle it up.
Activities that put your hands to work, like knitting, crocheting, and gardening, are proven stress relievers, and they may also keep your brain young. In a 2013 survey of about 3,500 knitters around the world, there was a correlation between knitting frequency and cognitive function; the more people knitted, the better function they had.
People who feel they've found their purpose in life have lower rates of depression and tend to live longer. Studies also show that this positive outlook also benefits the brain. In one study, those who reported having a strong purpose in life were more than twice as likely to stay Alzheimer's-free than people who did not profess a purpose. To develop a sense of purpose, focus on the positive impact you have at home or at work. You could also try volunteering for a cause that's meaningful to you.
Spending lots of time with friends and family, especially as you get older, may be one of the best buffers against mental decline. In one study, people who participated in social activities more often and who felt that they had ample social support did better on several measures of memory, as well as mental processing speed. "Social engagement is linked with mental agility," says Carey Gleason, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
Companies like Lumosity charge you a monthly fee for brain-training games, but playing puzzle games on your kid's Xbox may have the same effects—and depending on what you play, may be even more effective. In a Florida State University study, subjects either played games on Lumosity.com or played Portal 2, a popular action-puzzle game for computers, Playstation, and Xbox. Those who played Portal 2 scored better on problem solving, spatial skill, and persistence tests. Other research shows that playing Tetris may increase gray matter in the brain.
Don't spend an hour doing something that should take you 10 minutes. Conversely, don't spend 10 minutes on something that deserves an hour. In other words, calibrate your mental energy. "Decide from the get-go how much mental energy you are going to spend on a task," says Chapman. "Giving your full forceful energy all the time really degrades resources. You need to know when to do something fast and when to do something slow."
Sure, typing is faster, but writing longhand may be better for your brain. Studies have shown that students learn better when they take notes by hand because it forces them to process the information as they take it in. The cursive you learned in elementary school may be particularly useful. First graders who learned to write in cursive scored higher on reading and spelling than peers who wrote in print.
Go ahead, sneak in a super-quick catnap: it'll recharge your brain. One group of German researchers saw improvements in memory among people who dozed for as little as six minutes, although the results were even better among those who napped longer. Conversely, problems sleeping, including sleep apnea and insomnia, are associated with dementia. That research is still early (people with dementia have disturbed sleep), but bear in mind that sleeping seven to eight hours a night may help you live longer and, hopefully, healthier.
It may be easier than you think to get the optimal amount of physical activity. According to one study, washing the dishes, cooking, and cleaning can add to our daily activity total and are linked with a reduced risk of dementia. In the study, people with the least amount of total physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's compared with people reporting the most activity. Even playing cards and moving a wheelchair counted.
Whether it's physical activity or mental activity, you need to keep pushing your limits in order to reap the benefits. "You need to challenge yourself to the next level so you get the benefits," says Verghese. Don't be satisfied with finishing Monday's easy crossword puzzle. Keep going until you master Saturday's brainteaser as well. The same with walking: keep lengthening your distance.
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