Why keeping your brain active and engaged is so good for you
Just as our bodies need exercise to stay healthy, so do our brains. Here are four fun ways to keep your brain active!
It’s something that older people are used to hearing — “You have to keep your mind active”.
And it’s not just hearsay. As we age, our brain shrinks and we start to lose neurons. “This is called brain atrophy,” says Dr Kaarin J. Anstey in an interview (conducted Oct 4th 2020), who is Director of the NHMRC Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration, and Scientia Professor and Director of the UNSW Ageing Futures Institute.
“Also, there are some brain changes that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease and changes in blood vessels that build up in our brains to varying degrees as we get older. These are influenced by genetics, but also by medical conditions and lifestyle.”
While research can’t absolutely prove it — it would be impossible and unethical to conduct a controlled experiment on humans where one group was denied engagement in the world — long-term observational studies have found that older adults who stay mentally, physically and socially active have a reduced risk of dementia.
“We need to keep our cognitive abilities as sharp as possible as we age,” says Anstey. “There is normal age-related decline occurring from about the mid-sixties, but our risk of developing cognitive impairment and dementia also increases as we get older. So anything we can do to mitigate this risk is beneficial.”
Here are four simple — and fun! — ways to keep your brain engaged.
Join a book club
Don’t underestimate how good reading is for your brain. In addition to the entertainment value, reading can:
- improve memory,
- reduce stress,
- enhance brain connectivity, and
- keep your mind sharper for longer.
And we don’t mean browsing Twitter feeds and Facebook posts: a Stanford University study using MRIs to track the brain function of people reading Jane Austen concluded that “paying attention to literary texts requires the co-ordination of multiple complex cognitive functions”. In other words, read good books. Being a member of a book club also has a social aspect, which is very good for you. “If a mental activity has a social component, then that has the additional benefit of social interaction – which is also good for brain health,” says Anstey.
Learn a new language
You’re never too old to learn a new language, and while older brains might not be as quick on the uptake as younger ones, being bilingual is just as beneficial. In a research paper called “The Older Language Learner”, American education professor Mary J. Schleppegrell put to rest the idea that only children and young adults could master a second language successfully. “Studies indicate that attaining a working ability to communicate in a new language may actually be easier and more rapid for the adult than for the child,” she concluded. And learning a language isn’t just about words — it’s also about immersing yourself in a new culture, and opening the doors to a different travel experience.
Play games, do puzzles
“Playing challenging games that make you think and feel differently” is excellent fodder for the ageing brain, says Anstey. “They’re good because they require mental effort and new learning.” A British study with more than 19,000 participants found that the more regularly people aged 50-plus played puzzles (think crosswords and Sudoku), the better their brains functioned. “We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life but the research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer,” the study reported. To keep up the variety, consider activities like:
- bridge, and
- jigsaw puzzles.
It might seem simple, but having fun is actually great for our brains. That’s because laughing releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter which acts as a kind of reward for the brain, making us feel good and also encouraging us to continue the behaviour. And that’s not all: laughing can also improve immune function, relieve stress and anxiety, increase our tolerance for pain, and improve cardiovascular health. So find what tickles your funny bone — join a laughing group, watch slapstick movies, view your favourite comedians online — and do it regularly.
Keeping your mind active is important — so Apia has partnered with Five Good Friends to produce a hub full of content that can help address challenges facing older Australians, providing information, education and choice that will empower people to stay in their own homes longer and live life to the fullest.
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