4 Surprising Ways to Keep Your Brain Young
Most articles on keeping your brain young and sharp all repeat the same handful of things:
• Lower your stress
• Eat “healthy”
• Play brain games
• Get enough sleep
There are several reasons these things appear on nearly every list.
First, they really are important. Regular exercise has been shown to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s. The same with reducing stress. Stress and diet play a role in heart disease and diabetes, which both raise the risk of dementia significantly.
Playing games — and particularly video games — improves cognitive function, though “brain games” don’t appear to be any more beneficial than other types of video game. Chronic sleep deprivation affects your whole system and especially affects memory.
Another reason these topics show up a lot… they’re easy to write about. They don’t require much thought. They’re easy to explain. And there are tons of easily-accessible research on them. They’re good for a quick “fluffy” article without much substance, one you can read through in five minutes and come away from feeling like you’ve done your health-related good deed for the day.
However, this short list of things is only the tip of the iceberg. They’re important, but they’re far from the only things you can do. And in all honesty, if these are the only steps you take, you’re doing your brain a huge disservice. Because the most important tool for keeping your brain young is this:
Just like “eating healthy” without exercising your body won’t keep you fit, so eating right and sleeping well without exercising your brain won’t keep it in shape either. With that in mind — no pun intended — here are 4 surprising things you can do to give your mind a workout and keep it functioning like a younger brain.
Listen to new types of music
It may be a stretch to call what your grandkids — or even your adult children — listen to “music,” but listening anyway could have serious benefits for your brain. Most of us have had the experience of disliking a song when we hear it the first time, then having it become a favorite after repeated exposure. The farther from our normal taste the song is, the more likely the phenomena becomes. This is because new musical styles engage your brain and force it to work harder to “decode” them. And anything which challenges your brain to learn something new helps keep it young and limber.
Play games — both on-screen and off
I’ve touched briefly on video games as a brain-boosting tool — and I don’t mean so-called “brain training” games such as Luminosity. While these are perfectly ok and may be a challenge for some, standard video games are probably a better option…and they won’t charge you a monthly fee. Puzzle games are also a good choice and in fact research shows that the old classic Tetris may actually increase the amount of grey matter in your brain.
Board games also help maintain your brain. A study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that board games and other “challenging mental sports” could reduce the risk of dementia by and incredible 74%. Although chess is still king of the brain-boosting board games, even simpler games like checkers and cards are beneficial. As an added bonus, playing games can reduce your stress levels, which is good not just for your brain but your heart and your blood sugar too.
We now have an entire generation who, if they write by hand at all, do so in slow laborious print rather than good old fashioned cursive. For those of us who still know how to write like grown-ups, research suggests that the benefits may be many-fold.
Merely writing things by hand helps cement them in your memory by using multiple senses. But recent research looking into cursive writing versus print or typing shows that cursive has some very real physical effects. The act of writing in cursive lights up multiple parts of your brain — the areas involved in thinking, using language, and memory. It may even help you grow new neurons and make new pathways in your brain.
So if you’ve abandoned handwriting in favor of the keyboard, you’re missing out on a simple but effective memory-boosting activity. Make an effort to use cursive for personal correspondence, notes to yourself, and so on. And if you really want to reap the benefits, you can try learning a new style of cursive such as the lovely Copperplate or Spencerian scripts our great-grandparents used. Learning cursive has an even bigger effect than using it in day-to-day life.
Get in touch with your artistic side
Creative pursuits of all types appear to have a protective effect on your brain. A Mayo Clinic study found that older people who took up one of the fine arts such as painting or sculpting where 73% less likely to experience mild cognitive impairment — a precursor to Alzheimer’s — than those who didn’t. And the New England Journal of Medicine found that dancing three or four times a week had an equal effect on the risk of dementia. Even handcrafts like needlework can have a significant effect. Don’t worry about whether you’re work is gallery-worthy or that you have two left feet. The benefit comes from doing it, not the end product.
The key to a young, fit brain is regular mental exercise, so break out of your routine and challenge yourself. Take up a craft. Learn a new language. Teach someone else a new skill. Your brain is like a muscle, and if you don’t use it often enough or work it hard enough, it gets weaker - just like a muscle. When you give it a good workout on a regular basis, however, you can actually grow new neurons and create new pathways between existing ones.
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