Brain games – tips for staying mentally sharp with age

The mind is just like a muscle - the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the more it can expand.” Idowu Koyenikan, author

While many of us are spending more time at home, and some of us are watching more television, it’s important to remember that your brain needs to stay in shape just like your body does. The old adage ‘use it or lose it’ is particularly true when it comes to brain health. As we get older, the brain starts to experience normal age-related declines just like every other part of the body and some cognitive functions start to deteriorate, like the speed at which we process information. The good news? You can whip that older brain into shape! So let’s explore some fun ways to stay mentally sharp.

The brain is a fascinating, fantastic organ.  It contains an estimated 86 billion neurons, which are specialized cells that transmit information. These neurons are connected by a network of synapses, which link the neurons together. These pathways allow the neurons to communicate with each other. On average, the brain generates about 50,000 thoughts per day and produces enough electrical energy to power a light bulb.  Your brain uses about 20 percent of the circulating blood in your body and has 100,000 miles blood vessels. Are you impressed yet by how amazing your brain is?

Research over the last 30 years has revealed that these neural pathway connections in the brain are not fixed once we reach adulthood. The consensus amongst neuroscientists used to be that the brain remained relatively static after a critical period in childhood development.  With advances in brain scanning technologies like MRIs and PET scans, researchers discovered that we can develop new connections in the brain, even into old age. The brain never stops learning, so you can indeed teach that old dog new tricks!

Throughout a lifetime, the brain fine-tunes itself to meet your needs. For example, let’s say an individual signs up for a dance class to finally learn how to tango.  The brain will forge new pathways to tell the body how to perform that tango step. The more they practice the tango, the stronger that pathway will become.

A study funded by the American National Institute on Aging found that short mental workouts helped seniors stay mentally fit for at least five years. The even better news was that participants were able to transfer these improved skills to real life events like understanding instructions on a medicine bottle or reading a road sign faster.

Here are some fun ways to improve your mental fitness. Ready, set, go!

  • Learn something new - the brain is a learning machine and needs to be continually challenged to stay sharp. A neuron that no longer receives any stimulation will eventually die off. So sign up for a virtual guitar lesson, learn a new language, take up woodworking, re-design your garden or just discover something new that you love to do.
  • Make a word connection - who knows what a homograph is? A homograph is a word that is spelled the same but has a different meaning. A research scientist from Washington, Dr. Pascale Michelon, created this great word game using homographs to stimulate connections in the temporal lobe of your brain. It involves studying a word pairing, then trying to find the homograph. Here is an example, LOCK – PIANO. I’ll put the answer at the end of the article but don’t look until you’ve found the solution! For more word pairings, check out Dr. Michelon’s article.
  • Try some skill based games – you’ve probably heard this before, but games like chess (where you strategize your next move), or jigsaw puzzles (which employ problem solving skills) and number based puzzles like Sudoko (where you fill the blank spaces with numbers), all provide a great mental workout.
  • Memory games – To test your own memory, make a mental list of something, like what you need to pick up at the grocery store or a to do list. Take a moment to memorize it and then try to recall the list (in order) an hour later. And the more complicated the list is, the better the workout!
  • Change it up – try using your non-dominant hand to do everyday tasks. This can help challenge your brain and create some mental stimulation. So, tomorrow morning, try brushing your teeth or eating your toast with your opposite hand!
  • Exercise – yes, fit people have fit brains. Exercise elevates your heart rate, which means more blood and oxygen are being pumped throughout the body, including your brain. More blood flow means more nutrients like glucose are reaching the brain. To make exercise really count, try something new that will challenge your mind and your body. Take up a sport like racquetball for example, which requires considerable hand-eye coordination skills.

Krystal Stokes is the communications and public relations officer with Victoria Lifeline, a community service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation.

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