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October 21, 2015

Brain Health: Activities to Keep Your Brain Sharp

In 2013, researchers released results of a detailed study that shared brain-healthy behaviors— ones that “significantly reduce” risk for dementia. In fact, people who follow at least four of the five behaviors are 60 percent less likely to development cognitive impairment and dementia. These behaviors are:

  • Non-smoking
  • Optimal BMI
  • High fruit and vegetable intake
  • Regular physical activity
  • Low to moderate alcohol intake

A brain-healthy diet is well-balanced, low in fat and cholesterol and high in antioxidants. Meanwhile, exercise helps to protect brain tissue. Do you know what else is critical? Avoiding “ruts and boredom.” Your brain is designed to learn and when a person begins to pay less attention to his or her surroundings, the brain tends to atrophy and the person becomes more vulnerable to dementia.

Learning can be as simple as driving home a new way, the article suggests, or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, as well as enjoying Sudoku and word games. Memorize lists, do math in your head, draw a map from memory and try to identify specific ingredients in the food you’re eating. None of these strategies cost money, nor are they especially time-consuming—but they can be very effective.

Online games

Some expensive games and software programs claim to be computerized cognitive training but the study did not find any significant benefits to them. Instead, the suggestion is to focus on “novelty and challenge.”  

As just one example, AARP provides multiple free online games to help you keep your brain sharp. If you’ve always wanted to be a detective, you could play the private eye game where you locate the odd letter or symbol located in a grid. This game, the site says, requires significant attention to detail and works the visual-spatial part of your brain. You can even see a visual of what regions of the brain are used for these types of thinking processes.

Another game, called The Right Word, allows you to practice retrieving a word that is —as we say—on the tip of your tongue. Words that are infrequently used can be challenging to recall, so this is good practice. This game, not surprisingly, uses the language and memory centers of the brain.

CNN lists 10 brain-friendly apps to help keep your brain active and healthy. Perhaps the most interesting is Happify. Research shows, the article says, that “some activities help build your ability to conquer negative thoughts, show gratitude, cope with stress, and empathize—all essential ingredients for a fuller, happier life.” This app uses quizzes, polls and a gratitude journal to help users focus on “life-changing habits ... [to] keep users smiling all day long.” Best of all? It’s free!

Get up and move!

Meanwhile, a Harvard publication references another study that reveals that aerobic exercise does more than boost your heart rate and cause you to sweat. It also apparently increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region involved in verbal memory and learning. Participants in the study walked briskly for one hour, twice a week. 

If walking becomes monotonous, other activities could include swimming, climbing stairs, tennis, squash, dancing—and even “intense floor mopping, raking leaves or anything that gets your heart pumping so much that you break out into a light sweat.”

The article suggests that, if going it alone doesn’t get you to exercise:

  • Join a class or exercise with a friend
  • Track progress toward a goal
  • Hire a personal trainer

Keeping Your Brain Healthy eBook

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