brain lifting hand weights

At all ages, our brains need a good workout, just like our bodies. We are now living much longer but our cognitive health is not keeping up, because many of our brains are not being challenged and strengthened as we age. 

You know that saying, “She was a sharp as a tack at 97!” How often can you say that these days? This goes beyond not being able to recall that actor what’s-his-name, or forgetting where we set down our glasses, (check the top of your head.) One in five people are at risk for significant cognitive impairment, and after 65, and, unfortunately, our odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease are one in ten. Don’t despair! There’s so much you can do to stay sharp.

Use it or Lose it – For Real

More and more researchers suggest these stats can be changed! Richard Isaacson, an Alzheimer’s specialist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York says, “The very term ‘age-related memory loss’ may be a misnomer.” Genetics and the passage of time are not the whole story, we can do a great deal to improve our brain health. According to a 2017 report sponsored by The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care, a third or more of dementia cases can be delayed or prevented by improving lifestyle factors. 

Do I have your attention?  Good, keep reading. 

Tasking, Not Multitasking

Overloading your brain with too much stressful hopping around is really not making you more productive or improving your brain. A better way is to focus on one activity that allows you to gain mastery over time. Recently, I looked up from my favorite guilty pleasure–playing Candy Crush, and saw that 45 minutes had just evaporated. Poof! And when I considered how much time I was actually spending on social media, I thought, “Wow, I could have been using this time to learn Italian.” And so, I downloaded the Duolingo app and now for the last month, every morning I’m learning Italian. Wow. 

Now, don’t be jealous, but I can say super important things like this: “The lion reads the newspaper.” (Il leone legge il giornale.) Impressive right? Or how about this, “We buy pink pants.” (Noi compriamo i pantaloni rosa) Ok, ok, I know you’re laughing, but hey, I am too.

Posso avere una bicchiere di vino rosso per favor: “May I have a glass of red wine please?” This will actually be helpful when and if, I do have the opportunity to travel to Italy again. Having said all of this, my memory is actually improving and I was a little bit surprised. The repetition really helps. I’m learning how to say many things about food in this course, which makes it even more fun.

Here are some other ideas and apps to help improve your memory and all kinds of thinking skills:

Keep Learning and Socializing

Learning something new, whether it’s a language, an instrument, knitting, or another craft all challenge the brain in new ways and stimulate communication among neural pathways. Jobs can keep you mentally active, as well as volunteering or mentoring. Really listening and keeping track of the lives of your friends and relatives is a great way to stay close and exercise your memory. Remember a good story or memorize a joke or limerick and enjoy retelling it to others. 

Take a Load Off Your Brain

Like an older computer, as we age, we just don’t have as much space on our hard drive. So, delegate remembering appointments, birthdays, to-do lists and projects to your smart phone, digital assistant, day planner, and file folders. E-mailing a note to yourself immediately when you think of something that needs to get done or go on a list is a helpful habit. I use the microphone feature when I text myself, “Barb, remember to order that audiobook.” Give your brain the space to learn and remember something new. 

Here are a few popular ways to exercise your brain:

Sudoku 

The number puzzle that exercises short term and working memory; you have to look ahead and predict consequences to your moves. Online or free in the newspaper. Another personal favorite. I like to warm up with the super easy ones and then graduate to the extreme versions where I often have to peak at the answers.

Brain HQ

This one promises to exercise and improve your memory, attention, brain speed, people skills, intelligence, and navigation. And it is fun, colorful, and there are cool games that work with custom algorithms to make sure that each exercise adapts in difficulty as you work. You always train at the optimum level for you—where you are most likely to improve your performance.

Lumosity

One of the world’s most downloaded brain training apps offers brain training and mental fitness games, tests, and activities, backed by science. You can play them on the website, or download the free apps for iOS and Android.

Peak

Editor’s Choice and won ‘App of the Year’ for Google Play and the App Store. It includes a mix of short, intense brain workouts that test focus, memory, problem solving and mental agility.

Here’s the app I used for Italian.

Duolingo

More and more studies are showing that learning a language at any age could improve brain function. Duolingo is one of the world’s most popular language-learning apps. I am also taking Swahili classes here, which is fun and will help when next I visit FAME hospital in Tanzania (link: FAMEAfrica.org).

How do you keep your brain engaged and active?

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