August 4, 2023 —Just as physical fitness is essential to healthy hearts, lungs, muscles, joints, and every other bodily system, exercising the brain can significantly sharpen gray matter into advancing age.
While seniors are advised to engage in 30-60 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week, it is just as important for aging adults to work out their minds on a regular basis.
Generating New Brain Cells
Scientific evidence indicates that brain exercises activate the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for memory, planning, problem-solving, and cognition. What’s more, neuroscience is uncovering “incredible revelations” about the brain’s ability to make new cells.
According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon, medical reporter and author of 12 Weeks to a Sharper You, new brain cells can grow at any age, thanks to a chemical called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).
But in order for new cells to grow, we must continuously challenge our brains, especially as we age.
Beyond the Crossword
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
But when it comes to preserving brain health, change is exactly what older minds need.
Maintaining that humans use only 5-10% of our brain power 90% of the time, Dr. Gupta encourages us to “live a life of discovery.” In other words, we need to get out of our comfort zone and do things that are different.
While crossword puzzles – the proverbial custodian of sharp minds – can be fun and challenging, doing them to the exclusion of other forms of brain exercise is “like getting to know your own small town better,” according to Dr. Gupta. You only expand a small section of a very broad field of cerebral possibilities.
In particular, we should be doing things that require some sort of hand motor activity. Painting, arts and crafts, experimenting with a keyed instrument, or even performing a routine activity with one’s non-dominant hand are examples of hand motor activities that challenge the brain and germinate new cells.
Hold on to those crossword puzzles, though, because brain games are still hugely helpful to logical thinking, concentration, short-term memory, visual-spatial and problem-solving skills. There are countless mental games and puzzles available online and in printed form, and entire enterprises are devoted to training the brain.
Here are just a few brain games that are particularly effective and enjoyable for older loved ones.
- Trivia quizzes are a fun, memory-building favorite among seniors who’ve lived through a lot of common trivia subject matter, be it history, old movies, general knowledge, etc.
- Sudoku is challenging and stimulating to parts of the brain not used in everyday life.
- Word games increase focus, activate working memory, and improve cognition. Whether it’s the trusty crossword, word search, Words with Friends, Wordle, hangman, Scrabble, Boggle, the list is endless.
- Jigsaw puzzles strengthen visual-spatial skills while also relaxing heart rate and providing healthy distraction from stressful thoughts.
- Chess may be a bit daunting for those who’ve never played, but seniors can still learn, and the benefits of logical reasoning, problem-solving and increased concentration are substantial. Backgammon, mah-jongg and even checkers are other classic games that keep us sharp between the ears.
- You guessed it: Bingo is not only fun, friendly competition, it requires attention and focus and stimulates key senses.
- Brain training apps like Lumosity, Peak, CogniFit, and BrainHQ take mental fitness to a new level. Search “brain games for seniors” online and take your pick!
- Not the sole domain of the young, video games increase attention, memory, reactivity, and even cognitive performance.
Move It, Move It
The connection between physical fitness and cognitive health is indisputable. The reasons are many, but the principal causative factor is increased blood flow to the brain as we exercise. Indeed, the risk of vascular dementia (the second most common form of dementia) is greatly decreased with regular exercise.
Recent neuroscientific discoveries point again to BDNF and the growth of new brain cells, which can only happen through movement.
Interestingly, moderate physical activity (as opposed to intense aerobic activity) is better for the brain because it activates the growth of new cells without putting too much strain on the body. Strenuous exercise increases stress hormones, which combat the BDNF that grows new brain cells.
Since moderate exercise is better overall for older adults, the results are doubly beneficial.
Elementary, My Dear
Japanese neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima discovered that 30 minutes of math, reading and writing five days a week greatly improves brain function.
As such, an international program called the Brain Exercise Initiative was developed whereby university students lead dementia and non-dementia seniors in brain exercises consisting of simple math (done for speed, not complexity), reading and writing.
This initiative illustrates the importance of continuing to practice the basic skills we learned in elementary school. Though they were introduced long ago, the three biggies – reading, writing and arithmetic – continue to stimulate the prefrontal cortex and improve memory, planning and cognition.
Find Your Thing and Do It Often
Whether it’s new experiences, games and puzzles, physical activity, elementary skills, or (ideally) a combination of all of the above, the opportunities for brain development throughout all of life are as individual and unlimited as people on Earth.
Discovering how you or an older loved one will enhance brain function is half the fun; the other half is making sure to participate in it often. Some seniors and their families find that moving to a vibrant senior community like Barclay Friends is the best choice to engage body, spirit and mind, whether they’re fully independent, need person-centered memory care, or stand somewhere else on the continuum of care.
Training the brain is no different than training the body. Each day, scientists are learning more and more about the benefits of regular cognitive exercise.
Dare we say, it’s mind-blowing.