Your Brain: Use It Or Lose It

Keeping your brain active is important to keep it functioning well.

active brainI am traveling with my son for 2 weeks in Australia. While it is awesome to visit new places and eat new foods, one of the things I look forward most about traveling is to get out of my everyday routine. While Australia is similar in culture to the US there are many differences here “Down Under”.

One of them is driving on the left side of the road with the driver’s seat on the right. This is made even more challenging as the car we have is a manual transmission, so I have been shifting with my left hand. In addition, the turn signal is on the right of the wheel. While I haven’t tried to enter the car on the passenger side, I have a number of times tried to turn on the turn signal and turned on the windshield wipers! 

This experience, while a little challenging, has reminded me how important it is to change things up, especially for our long-term brain health. Learning and practicing new skills throughout our daily lives, helps with brain plasticity and slow down the cognitive decline associated with aging.

Scientists have found that challenging the brain with new activities helps to build new brain cells and strengthen connections between them. This helps to give the brain more ‘reserve’ or ‘back up’ so that it can cope better and keep working properly if any brain cells are damaged or die.

Mental exercise may also protect against the accumulation of damaging proteins in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. As we grow older we tend to prefer doing the things we’ve always done, tasks that we are familiar with – and that’s understandable – but the brain benefits by having to tackle something it doesn’t know.

brain puzzlesIt could be learning a new language, taking up a new sport, doing a course in something you’re always wanted to do – anything really, as long as it’s learning something new. Challenge yourself often and keep learning new things throughout life. Higher levels of mental activity throughout life are consistently associated with better brain function and reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

This is especially important for older or retired people, as increased complex mental activity in later life is associated with a lower dementia risk, which is good news for those who are able to work beyond retirement age.

How much and what type of mental activity do you need to do to reduce your risk of cognitive decline or dementia? 

The research evidence to date suggests that any activity that involves thinking and learning may be beneficial for brain health and protecting against the brain. The evidence also suggests that greater benefit comes from more complex and challenging mental activities. The more brain activities you do, the more frequently you do them, and the more complex the activity, the lower your risk of dementia is likely to be.

Choose a variety of activities that you enjoy

Choose activities that challenge your brain and give you enjoyment as well. If you try to do something that you find very difficult or boring, you may become frustrated or stressed, and this is not healthy for your brain.

With many mentally stimulating activities, you can start at an easier level and move to more challenging levels as you get better with practice. This also helps you include new learning in your routine, which is important for building your brain reserve.

We are likely to be involved in different types of mentally stimulating activities at different stages of our life. No matter what your age, and whether you are studying, working or retired, exercising your brain can help reduce your risk of developing dementia.

Formal education, working or running a family can keep your brain very active. What you do in your leisure time can also help. If you are retired, you should think about new ways to give your brain a regular workout. There are many, many activities that involve mental stimulation and challenge. You could try:

  • A hobby such as painting, carpentry, metal work, sewing, craft or collecting
  • A short course such as woodwork, gardening, computers, cooking, mechanics or yoga
  • Reading different styles of books, newspapers or magazines
  • Writing poetry, essays or keeping a diary
  • Doing jigsaw, crossword, number or word puzzles
  • Playing board games or cards
  • Learning to dance, play an instrument or speak a new language
  • Going to the theatre, movies, museum, gallery or a concert
  • Cooking a new recipe or building a model
  • Joining a club or community group or volunteering
  • Researching something you’re interested in on the internet or at your local library

Even having a chat with a friend about current affairs involves brain exercise. Choose activities that you enjoy and try to include lots of variety to exercise different parts of your brain. Challenge yourself often and keep learning throughout life to keep your brain sharp. 

There are also a number of brain training programs now available online. There is evidence for some of these programs that they can significantly improve cognitive function. Below are some links where you can go on the web for challenging brain teasers and activities. These can be a fun way to keep your brain active.  

The Sharp Brains website has independent information about the many brain training products available. Try their Quizzes to see how much you know about Your Brain Matters and Your Amazing Brain, and test your Music Knowledge.

The Games for the Brain website has many different types of games challenging different cognitive skills.

The BrainBashers website has games, puzzles, jigsaws, brain teasers, riddles, optical illusions and more.

And lastly, while an active brain is critical these other key health factors are critical for a healthy brain: 

  • Regular physical activity
  • Deep sleep
  • Low and stable blood sugars that come from eating whole foods free from sugars and higher carbohydrates loads
  • Optimal levels of omega 3, vitamin D3, nitric oxide and magnesium
  • Staying free from toxins