We don’t just lose muscle over time — our brains can atrophy, too. More specifically, your brain's cognitive reserve — its ability to withstand neurological damage due to aging and other factors without showing visible signs of slowing or memory loss — diminishes through the years. That can make it more difficult to perform mental tasks. But just as weight workouts add lean muscle to your body and help you retain more muscle in your later years, researchers now believe that following a brain-healthy lifestyle and performing regular, targeted brain exercises can also increase your brain's cognitive reserve.
The Healthy Brain: A Multifaceted Approach
In one of the most detailed studies on the connection between lifestyle and dementia risk to date, researchers found that people who participate in multiple healthy behaviors significantly reduce their risk for dementia. The 2013 study, published in PLOS ONE, looked at 2,235 men for 30 years and measured their participation in five healthy lifestyle behaviors: non-smoking, optimal BMI, high fruit and vegetable intake, regular physical activity, and low to moderate alcohol intake. The study participants who followed four or all five of the behaviors were about 60 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.
10 Real-World Brain Exercises That Work
On top of a healthy diet and regular exercise, there are ways to give your brain its own workout routine — without emptying your wallet. Although brain training software is everywhere these days, it has yet to show any significant neurological benefits for older adults. In a 2014 review published in PLOS Medicine, Australian researchers looked at 52 different studies on computerized cognitive training on a total 4,885 participants and found that the games are not particularly effective in improving brain performance.
Experts recommend sticking to brain training that involves real-world activities. Exercises to strengthen brain function should offer novelty and challenge. "Almost any silly suggestion can work," says David Eagleman, PhD, neuroscientist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. "Drive home via a different route; brush your teeth with your opposite hand. The brain works through associations [which is why it's easier to memorize lyrics to a song than it is to try and remember the same words without music], so the more senses you involve the better."
Your morning newspaper is a great place to start. "Simple games like Sudoku and word games are good, as well as comic strips where you find things that are different from one picture to the next," says John E. Morley, MD, director of St. Louis University's Division of Geriatric Medicine and author of The Science of Staying Young. In addition to word games, Dr. Morley recommends the following exercises to sharpen your mental skills:
- Test your recall. Make a list — of grocery items, things to do, or anything else that comes to mind — and memorize it. An hour or so later, see how many items you can recall. Make items on the list as challenging as possible for the greatest mental stimulation.
- Let the music play. Learn to play a musical instrument or join a choir. Studies show that learning something new and complex over a longer period of time is ideal for the aging mind.
- Do math in your head. Figure out problems without the aid of pencil, paper, or computer; you can make this more difficult — and athletic — by walking at the same time.
- Take a cooking class. Learn how to cook a new cuisine. Cooking uses a number of senses: smell, touch, sight, and taste, which all involve different parts of the brain.
- Learn a foreign language. The listening and hearing involved stimulates the brain. What’s more, a rich vocabulary has been linked to a reduced risk for cognitive decline.
- Create word pictures. Visualize the spelling of a word in your head, then try and think of any other words that begin (or end) with the same two letters.
- Draw a map from memory. After returning home from visiting a new place, try to draw a map of the area; repeat this exercise each time you visit a new location.
- Challenge your taste buds. When eating, try to identify individual ingredients in your meal, including subtle herbs and spices.
- Refine your hand-eye abilities. Take up a new hobby that involves fine-motor skills, such as knitting, drawing, painting, assembling a puzzle, etc.
- Learn a new sport. Start doing an athletic exercise that utilizes both mind and body, such as yoga, golf, or tennis.
Soon people will realize that they can take steps to keep their brains healthy, just as they know they can prevent heart disease by taking certain actions, says Bender. "In the coming decade, I predict brain wellness to be right up there with heart health — now that there's proof that living a brain-healthy lifestyle works!”
Sarah McNaughton also contributed to this report.