Diving into a crossword puzzle, reading a great book, and completing a word game are all fun ways to stimulate your brain.
And they become even more important as you get older. The best way to tend to your mental fitness is to treat the brain like any other muscle in the body and continue to use and challenge it.
Let's dive into what neuroscientists and psychologists focused on ageing well have to say about the best brain exercises for keeping your mind sharp through the decades.
The importance of brain health and mental fitness
So what do brain exercises actually do, and how do they impact your mental fitness? "Brain exercises keep your brain flexible and changing—this is neuroplasticity," says neuroscientist Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D.
"When we learn something new, then we get the direct benefit of that new learning but also global benefits in the brain in our executive functioning such as emotional regulation, complex problem solving, creative thinking, etc.," Swart adds.
Elane O'Brien, Ph.D., psychologist and co-author of The Power of Play: Optimize Your Joy Potential, cites what's known as the "theory of multiple intelligences" to further explain how brain games work.
When we use strategy to solve puzzles or play thinking games, we engage our linguistic-verbal intelligence and put thoughts and feelings into words. This helps develop our cognition and creativity. "Intellectual play and games involving problem-solving, thinking, and practicing new mental skills can teach us how things work in the world. There is an activation of concentration, strategy, and active thinking during playtime," says O'Brien.
Swart adds that it's important to play brain games throughout your life1—not just when you're in school or when you reach older age. "Brain cells can start to shrink or die in your 20s2, so the age to start challenging your brain is when you are not naturally learning [as many new things]," she says.
For a general rule of thumb on when to prioritize different types of brain exercise, neurologists Dean Sherzai, M.D., and Ayesha Sherzai, M.D., directors of the Alzheimer's Prevention Program at Loma Linda University, previously told mindbodygreen that it may be helpful to focus on attention in your 20s, memory in your 30s, and executive function in your 40s and beyond.
There are an array of games and exercises that can do the trick in stimulating your brain and aiding your memory, creativity, and problem-solving. "As with any learning, the more you repeat the learning process and the longer you do it, the more benefits you will get," says Swart.
Here are four brain-stimulating exercises that are engaging, enjoyable, and sustainable throughout the decades of your life:
1. Play board games or card games
Social games like board and card games can combine the benefits of brain exercises with those of social connection3. These are ideal to play weekly with friends or family. (I recently played Scrabble with a 90-year-old woman, and she won easily!) Consider joining a club or organizing your own game nights. Research suggests4 that this combination of social elements and mental stimulation is especially effective.
2. Do Crosswords, Sudoku, Wordle etc
Research suggests that brain-training games done solo, like crosswords or Sudoku, can also help protect against cognitive decline5. These types of activities are easy to do every day. Consider the New York Times crossword that differs in difficulty based on the day of the week—perfect for making sure you continue to flex your mental muscles.
Brain exercises should become more challenging over time, says Swart. That's why she suggests online brain games or apps that can easily be scaled up in intensity and difficulty.
"Brain HQ and Cognifit have been shown to have benefits for cognitive function6 (thinking, memory, etc)." These games and apps are built to increase in difficulty and are easy to engage in daily, especially since they are easily accessible on your phone.
4. Learn a valuable new skill
Finally, Swart notes, brain exercises should be transferable to real-life problem-solving. She also suggests activities like learning a new language, musical instrument, dance, coding, or cooking to round out the list.
Completing brain games and exercises isn't the only way to support your cognitive function.
Here are a few other elements that have been scientifically shown to keep the mind sharp as you age:
1. Prioritize social connections and things you have in common with your peers.
Ellen Cole, Ph.D., a psychologist who focuses on women in their 70s and beyond, believes that social connection is not just important; it's everything. Research supports the overwhelmingly positive impact of social connections7 on physical and mental health. Isolation and loneliness become more common as we age, and they are tremendously harmful to health8.
"One of the things that I love more than anything else when I'm with people my age is how we laugh about how we can't wear high heel shoes anymore, or we go upstairs and then we forget why we're there," says Cole. She found this reflected in her research, observing focus groups of women thriving in their eighth decade. There was a shared feeling of relief to talk about these changes, and universal in these focus groups was the discussion of changes in memory.
"Neurologically, play is one of the fastest and most effective ways to spark lifelong learning, creativity, and resilience, while keeping your brain fitness," says O'Brien.
One way to get started playing for the sake of your brain? Move your body to music. In O'Brien's research on active older women participating in a community dance exercise class, the combination of music and dance brought people together. "Music moves us physically and emotionally and improves our cognition and brain function at every age and stage of our life," she concludes.
"Ageism is a killer, literally and figuratively," Cole says. "If you think it's better to be younger than older, then you're not going to age well." Cole herself exemplifies the rejection of ageist thought patterns: She earned another master's degree at age 70 and 10 years later continues to engage in work focused on positive aging.
Swart echoes that anybody, no matter their age, can use neuroplasticity to reinvent themselves—an incredibly hopeful sentiment that reminds us of the opportunities each stage of life brings.
The Key Takeaway?
Brain games help fight cognitive decline by exercising the brain like any other muscle. Beyond using classics like crosswords and Sudoku, games that connect you with other people are especially effective because of how important it is to be with others, especially as we age. It's also important to acknowledge that our brains will change and that aging brings about new opportunities to continue to pursue passions, follow curiosity, and experience joy. To continue to learn about how to optimize cognitive function and memory, check out more resources on how to improve episodic memory and flex your mental fitness.
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