One in eight adults over 60 report some form of memory loss (CDC). A little forgetfulness doesn’t mean you’re headed for Alzheimer’s Disease. But, this statistic is a strong reminder that our brains need a little help as we get older.
The research is quite clear that having a hobby helps protect your brain as you age. "Lifelong learning is the key to maintaining cognitive function," says Rosebud Roberts in the Mayo Clinic’s study published in Neurology. "It's a 'use it or lose it' scenario. When you engage in cognitively stimulating activities you're strengthening synaptic connections, but if you don't use those circuits in your brain, the connections degenerate." The study found that adults who engaged in activities like arts and crafts, book clubs and travel were half as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment in their 80s as those who did not pursue brain-boosting hobbies.
Those benefiting most in the Mayo study began such pursuits in midlife. Not only will you benefit more, but you have time to learn what you enjoy and develop a habit of pursuing your hobbies. Plus, why wait? The old practice of waiting to do leisure activities and travel after retirement has been turned on its head. We’ve all begun to realize how unbalanced a life only centred around work can be. And, worse yet, it’s difficult to find one’s self with few outside interests when our working life ends.
There isn’t one “best” answer. However, there’s a lot of research on some of the most beneficial activities and key elements of a “brain boosting hobby”. Not everyone likes the same things, so it’s vital you pick something you’ll enjoy and stick with. We’ll help you pick out a hobby you and your brain will love.
The brain relies on the cardiovascular system to keep it supplied with nutrient and oxygen-rich blood. So, heart health is brain health. Regular exercise protects against heart disease and diabetes, both of which create risk of cognitive problems. Exercise also boosts creativity and helps with depression. Studies have even found exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus. There is also evidence of effects on the frontal lobes, which help us plan and organize our daily lives.
What type of exercise is best? Clear benefits come from an activity that gets the blood pumping (i.e cardiovascular). Do something you enjoy and will do regularly. Even just a daily walk makes a big difference. Walk with a friend or walking club for an added boost. An exercise that increases flexibility and balance has major benefits as we age too. The best prescription is to “mix it up” a bit and just keep moving.
Games that involve strategy, wordplay and numbers may help improve your memory (1). Playing various games requires problem-solving skills, which can help increase neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to develop and form new connections).
Of course, we’ve already mentioned the benefits of learning something new and challenging. Languages and music might just be two of the best challenges to take on.
Playing music helps language, math, and analytical skills, as well as creativity and motor skills. Because of the different skills involved, music can create and strengthen brain connections. This aids in memory and problem solving, as well as improving overall brain function.
Studies show that people who are bilingual are better at solving certain kinds of puzzles and focusing on multiple tasks. This is because the portion of their brains that involve reasoning, planning, and memory are further developed. Speaking multiple languages improves these areas, which grouped together make up the essential “executive function”. Unfortunately, executive function deficits are a common symptom of dementia. The more you develop these areas of the brain, the greater chance you give your brain.
Travel contributes to brain health in a few ways. Taking vacations and getting away from your daily responsibilities reduces stress. It expands the mind with new and different experiences. Travel is hands-on learning. And it typically involved mentally and physically stimulating activities, which we know are good for the brain.
Volunteering contributes to a sense of purpose, creates connections and reduces loneliness and depression. Choose volunteer roles that connect you with others or even give you physical exercise. Take on a new challenge such as leading a committee. Or, incorporate language learning by tutoring someone in English as a foreign language.
Cook healthy meals. Nutrition feeds your brain. Cooking can be a relaxing activity and you can challenge yourself too. Get into the habit of preparing fresh food. Or if you know this just isn’t your thing, learn about resources to help you eat well. There’s no excuse not to anymore, with grocery and meal delivery services and meal prep that can be done for you at home.
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