Younger you: Mental stimulation is the secret ingredient to staying young in mind. This involves challenging your brain, getting it to jump those mental hurdles it might shy away from. If, for example, you like to do the easy level of Sudoko or the simplex crossword, move over to the harder levels and get your brain to sweat a little. Stretching your brain in this way will improve your mental sharpness and it might fight off some of the negative effects that ageing has on your brain, helping you stay brain fit as you age. But the key to any new challenge is to make sure it is still a fun and enjoyable experience; so don’t push the dial too far into the red and get stressed. Your brain won’t thank you for that.
Novelty: Don’t be stuck in a rut and always do the same things. If you take the easy road all the time, your brain will not bother saving itself for challenges that may lie ahead. Try and learn a new skill or hobby. You could learn a new language, develop computer skills to wow family members or join a new class. Visit new places, go to a museum you never visited or meet new people. Anything new that you learn helps to bolster brain connections and also lays down new tracks in your brain building your reserve. This enriches your brain network and opens up new routes that your brain might welcome if it ever needs to bypass blockages or go around damaged circuits.
Prof Ian Robertson explains how to keep your brain in great shape with the three rules of healthy brain ageing: challenge, change and learning.
Complexity is good: People with a higher education, mentally demanding occupations or who take part in brain-pumping leisure activities consistently have a lower risk of suffering from dementia. And it is never too late to jump on this bandwagon. Increased complex mental activity late in life has been linked to lower dementia risk independent of other factors such as education. And the more activity you gulp down the better. Scientists say mental activity is likely to add to brain reserve, topping up your account so that you can keep going even when faced with the threat of neurodegenerative disease. This backup fund may reduce the risk or delay the onset of dementia.
Stimulation v Training: In the matchup between brain training games and programs and everyday mentally challenging activities, there is a clear winner. There is little evidence that games and programs that you might buy reduce the risk of dementia. On the other hand, if you plunge into leisure activities that are mentally strenuous at least twice a week you can reduce your chances of experiencing dementia and Alzheimer's disease. This was the finding from a 4-year study which involved over 5,000 dementia-free people aged over 65 in the French cities of Dijon and Montpellier. Those doing a crossword puzzle, playing cards, attending organisations, going to the cinema or theatre or practising an artistic activity at least twice a week had a 50% reduced risk of developing dementia over the following four years of the study compared to those who did such activities less than once a week. You can read about this study here. And there is other evidence. Scientists have reported that complex mental workouts go hand in hand with reduced shrinkage or even expansion of the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped brain area that is our mind’s memory HQ. You can find an example of one such study here. Anything which reduces brain shrinkage where you store memories is good news.
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