For a long time, we’ve been led to believe that as we age our brains naturally age with us, leading to an unavoidable decline in cognitive function, the loss of ability to learn new things, and reduction in memory. But that model no longer holds up. Instead, there is now plenty of research that points to a new theory – that your brain power only declines if you allow it to. You can actually sharpen your brain as you age.
Brain health is just as important as physical health, and yet we don’t really have as many clear guidelines on how to “workout” the brain. How do we keep it fast and on point?
Here are eight simple ways you can add years to your brain by not only potentially warding off the risk of dementia and other brain-related diseases… you could gain an exciting new lifestyle in the process!
1. Create some new nerve cells
We’re told to exercise more in order to attain long term health, but did you know that physical activity also has the capacity to build new nerve cells in your brain? Regular exercise not only encourages oxygen-rich blood flow to your brain, it can also activate new nerve cells and increase the synapses between the brain cells.1 Just like exercise keeps our muscles stretched and limber, it also keeps our brains limber. Plus, exercise has the added benefit of also lowering blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and reducing mental stress… which help your brain as much as they help your heart.
2. Stay emotionally fit
We all feel less productive when we’re tired, but the sleep-deprived also tend to score lower on cognitive function tests. Additionally, those who suffer from high stress, anxiety, or depression may be just as prone to failing such tests. As we age and are at a higher risk of developing things like Alzheimer’s disease, this is particularly important. A study out of Australia showed that of test subjects with high levels of amyloid plaque (one of the two brain abnormalities that define Alzheimer’s disease), those with high anxiety showed a significantly greater rate of decline over time in global cognition, verbal memory, language, and executive function than the low anxiety group.2
3. Get uncomfortable
When we were children, we voraciously threw ourselves into learning many different things. But as we grew older, we learned to specialize – and so began a daily routine of using the same skills over and over. But that narrowing of learning scope may actually lead to cognitive decline, as it limits function to only the parts of the brain we’re using on a daily basis.3 Start challenging yourself with a new hobby or skill that is far removed from what you are usually good at. If you’re usually an athletic person, pick up a paintbrush and try your hand on a canvas. If you feel out of your comfort zone, good. It means you’re on the right track!
4. Learn multiple skills simultaneously
In addition to learning a new skill, you’ll actually be doing yourself a greater favor if you learn more than one new skill. By learning in more than one area – as children do – you are effectively “stretching” your brain in different directions.4 You may be thinking, “But where do I find the time?” and adults do indeed have more time pressures than children. But the good news is, you need only start small. Try adding a new skill every 6-12 months to keep your mind sharp – start with that painting today and in six months, perhaps pick up that ukulele you’ve always wanted to try.
5. Turn your iPad into a force for good
Recent research indicates that people of any age can speed up their brains, because the brain is actually a pliable learning machine. It thrives in a learning atmosphere. How do we speed it up? With targeted exercises for brain health.5
This concept of brain fitness is powering a whole multitude of apps right now. Nintendo was even inspired by a Japanese doctor to develop a handheld video game called Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day. Look for apps that engage your focus, like chess or puzzles, or learning a new language. Or grab a targeted app like Brain HQ, developed by leading neuroscientist Michael Merzenich.
6. Mellow out to some melodies
Clinical studies have shown that music can also provide a total brain workout. Johns Hopkins researchers had jazz performers and rappers improvise music while lying down inside an MRI machine in order to see which areas of their brains lit up. They concluded that because music is structural, mathematical, and architectural, your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.6 Music is also often connected to deeply-rooted memories, which helps our brain to flex those long-term memory muscles. Music also helps the brain by reducing anxiety, blood pressure, and even sleep quality.
7. Practice mindfulness
Could staying curious actually prevent mental decline? According to Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard, it can. After 40 years of research, Langer found that our fixed ideas can affect the way we age, and the more mindful people are, the longer they live, the healthier they are, and the happier they are. Curiosity makes the world exciting, encouraging our brains to stay engaged and interested. Langer discovered that memory loss could be reversed by giving elderly people more reasons to remember facts. In another study, she found that simply giving nursing-home residents control over certain decisions not only improved their psychological and physical health, but also their longevity.7
8. Stay the course
Unlike young children, older people are programmed to be highly aware of failure. Adults hate feeling like they can’t do something and often quit before they “make a fool” out of themselves.
Children, on the other hand, don’t care what they look like or what people think – they just keep trying until they get good at something. The underlying issue is that by adulthood, most people believe that they can’t learn a new skill, and after a couple of perceived failures, they throw in the towel. But researchers have shown that with through perseverance comes new skills. You must allow yourself to take that risk: To make mistakes and fail.8
One of the biggest factors in mental decline is that as people grow older, they start to believe that they’re losing their memory or their ability to do things. But a key part of brain health is believing in yourself… and the key to doing this is simple: Challenge yourself.
Take on new skills with vigor, stay curious, and never blame your age for forgetfulness. Push yourself to believe in the power and adaptability of your brain.