8 Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age
Last Updated: Jul 30, 2015
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Physical exercise is essential for our muscles and heart to stay strong and in good shape. But what about your brain? Just like your body, you should give your mind a regular workout to ensure it stays healthy as you age. You don’t need a gym for this, though -- the tools you have are all around you, according to our expert sources, Dara Schwartz, a clinical psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital in San Diego, and brain-injury survivor Ruth Curran, author of “Being Brain Healthy” Keep reading for eight techniques to start working into your everyday life, ensuring a long and happy life for your brain.
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LEARN SOMETHING NEW AND COMPLEX
“When I talk about brain health, I talk about it like circuit training for your brain,” says Dr. Schwartz, who advocates for the idea of integrating into your daily life various “stations” like you would see inside a gym. Her first circuit is the idea of learning something new, ideally something that does not come easily for you. “If it’s challenging and frustrating, it’s probably good for your brain,” she says. “Your brain is trying really hard to figure out something new.” For instance, if you’re not mechanically minded, try learning some automotive skills, or if you’re not a word person, try memorizing the lyrics of a song or a poem.
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RE-TRAIN YOUR BODY
Part of brain health also includes making sure your body has to learn new ways to do routine tasks. One of the techniques Ruth Curran, M.S., used to amp up her neuron activity was walking in a different way than she was used to. “I tried walking on curbs instead of the sidewalk, stepping up and over stairs instead of taking each one, weaving back and forth instead of just in a straight line,” Curran says. “Forcing the brain to do something deeply embedded in a different way is an excellent way to mix it up.”
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PRACTICE PUBLIC SPEAKING
Dr. Schwartz believes that a key stop on the “circuit” of brain exercises is developing verbal fluencies. “If you find yourself struggling with word finding, that’s an example of how verbal fluency decreases as you age.” To help maintain this skill, she recommends practicing public speaking, just like in debate. “I tell my patients to research a new topic, then speak about the topic for three minutes,” she says. Even one minute is fine, and you don’t have to speak in front of anyone -- just speaking out loud, ideally on a topic unfamiliar to you, is helpful.
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USE TWO SENSES TOGETHER
No, we’re not saying make your life more difficult. Instead, it’s about looking at ways to integrate multiple senses when you do an activity. Curran says that “adding music to mundane activities like cleaning or driving helps forge new pathways.” Dr. Schwartz agrees: “The brain does well when you have to use two senses together.” Other ideas: Listen to an audiobook while cooking or carry a small bottle of a strong essential oil like peppermint with you when you go for a walk and sniff it every once in a while.
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FLEX YOUR SHORT- AND LONG-TERM MEMORY
Remember the classic electronic memory game Simon? Turns out that flashing pattern of red, blue, green and yellow lights was more than just entertaining. Developing memory and concentration skills is another of Dr. Schwartz’s circuit stops. “Focus on both long- and short-term memory,” she says. “For example, focus on a year and talk about what happened that year of your life. Try to also remember what you did yesterday: Where did you drive? What came in the mail?” Games like Simon are excellent for concentration skills, and now there are a number of apps you can download for your phone as well as sites like Curran’s CraniumCrunches.com, which has free memory games.
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CONNECT AND BE AFFECTIONATE
Countless studies tout the impact of strong relationships on health and wellness. Turns out there is a medical reason why: “The human brain rewards us for connecting with others,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Things like hand-holding, touching and even eye-gazing trigger a release of oxytocin in the brain. Often our social circles get smaller as we get older, and at the same time your brain starts to forget how to produce oxytocin,” she adds. To keep that feel-good hormone flowing, try joining a new club, volunteering or accepting a new work assignment that will force you to meet and interact with new people.
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DECLUTTER YOUR BRAIN
Have you ever seen the TV show “Hoarders”? Here’s the common theme: After the subject is helped with a reduction in clutter, their life and emotional outlook seems to improve. The same is true for your brain. “As our brain becomes overwhelmed with information, it can be very hard to focus. Mindfulness is a tool that can help with clarity as you age,” says Dr. Schwartz. You can learn how to practice mindfulness in seminars and through websites and apps, but a great, simple exercise to do is single-sensation mindfulness. Spend one minute a day focusing only on a single sense: What do you hear around you? How does your body feel? Or hold a soothing object and focus on touch. “You are teaching yourself that you can be in control of where your mind goes. The more in control you feel over where your brain goes, the better functioning the brain,” Schwartz adds.
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GET TREATMENT IF NECESSARY
Conditions like anxiety or depression can have a large effect on overall brain health. “These conditions can cause the brain to slow down overall, even if you are doing regular circuit activities,” says Dr. Schwartz. If you think you might be struggling with either of these issues, talk to your doctor about your options so you don’t derail all the other good things you are doing for your brain.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
What has been your best tip for staying sharp? Have you noticed ways your brainpower might be slipping? What do you plan to do about it? What are your greatest concerns as you age?
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