The dreaded “senior moment”: that instance that you can’t find the right word, your car keys or recall the name of an old friend. No matter that we all, no matter our age, have those moments. When it happens to you, it gets real. You worry, “Am I beginning to lose my memory?”
The fact is that as we age, we tend to lose some of the ability to remember things. The good news though is that significant decline is not inevitable. Science is uncovering new information about cognitive health and aging that can potentially keep you mentally and physically spry well into those later years.
Turns out, your brain contains receptors that are active in encoding and retaining information. As we age, these receptors are not as plentiful or as efficient. This doesn’t mean you can’t retain information, it just means that your brain has to work a little harder. They need stimulation. And when things get stimulated, they grow.
For a lot of us, it’s hard to know exactly what to do. And the worry can be paralyzing!
Games People Play
You’ve probably heard that puzzles and other brain-stimulating games can help keep you mentally sharp. They’re like mental gymnastics that help to keep your brain function flexible and strong.
Studies have shown that mentally challenging activities that require deep cognitive processing help to keep the brain functioning well. However, not all games are created equally. Games like crossword puzzles focus on logical thinking and problem-solving skills. What seems to be even more stimulating are games and activities that require learning new and complex skills.1
Online brain training games (such as Lumosity) have been shown to improve cognitive flexibility, memory, attention, speed, and problem solving.2 Even video games are getting in on the fun. Strategy-based video games have been shown to improve attention, working memory, spatial awareness, focus and more.3
But, for all the hype about games being good brain stimulation, guess what has been shown to be even MORE helpful for brain health?
Get Your Moves On
Physical activity has consistently proven to be one of the best things you can do to keep your brain sharp. Why? Physical activity is like brain food. When you stimulate your cardiovascular system, your brain is flooded with oxygen and nutrients that it needs to function well. What exercise also does is engage your brain in higher-level tasks that require attention, focus, coordination, balance and more.4
Physical exercise doesn’t have to mean hours in the gym. You can walk your dog, dance with your honey, take a class with a friend, swim, golf. It’s your call!
The important thing is to move and move often. The CDC recommends that adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity.5 That’s about 30 minutes, 5 days a week. Totally doable.
Get Your Zzzz’s
Sleep is something you might not think much about but it is becoming quite the player in brain health. Did you know that when you sleep your brain is being cleansed and memories are being stored? What’s more important is that when you sleep, toxic proteins called beta-amyloids are being washed away by the brain’s glymphatic system.6 Beta-amyloids are thought to play a key role in the development of dementia. So washing them away is a good thing!
So how much sleep do you need? While it varies from person to person, most experts recommend about 8 hours of sleep. Having trouble sleeping? That’s something to definitely work on improving through sleep hygiene or seeing your doctor for advice.
Check Your Gut
Gut health and microbiome are words you’re probably hearing more and more these days. What do they have to do with brain health? Turns out, maybe a lot more than we knew. Research has found that certain bacteria found in our gut can precipitate the development of those nasty beta-amyloids.7
So, what does this mean for you and your brain? Eat a healthy diet that includes whole foods. Limit the junk food. Believe it or not, what we eat affects our gut lining or microbiome. Feed it well.
Make the Connection
Did you know that being engaged socially is one of the most important activities for keeping your brain health? We are social beings. We need that connection to others. Having friends and doing things together makes us feel good and gives us purpose. Know what else it does?
Being socially engaged actually helps our brain rewire itself and make new connections. Based on something called neuroplasticity, the brain is able to modify its connections between brain cells and even generate new brain cells through a process known as neurogenesis. These processes are critical to cognition, memory and emotions.8
What all this means is that having an active social life can have a direct impact on your brain health. So get out there and have some fun with your friends!
There you have it: some of the best recommendations we currently have for staying mentally sharp and protecting our brain health. So, you’re probably wondering, what happened to Joe?
Still need more reasons to get serious?
The latest research in brain health has found that, above all else, a lifestyle that is balanced and well-rounded seems to be the key to staying physically and mentally strong. They found that when combined, lifestyle factors such as brain stimulation and engagement, exercise, diet, sleep and social engagement play a profound role in keeping us physically and mentally sharp.9 By themselves, these are all healthy things to do. When put together, lifestyle might just be the ultimate stimulation. So what are you waiting for?
1. Requena, C., & López, V. (2014). Measurable benefits on brain activity from the practice of educational leisure. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 6, 40.
2. Al-Thaqib, A., Al-Sultan, F., Al-Zahrani, A., Al-Kahtani, F., Al-Regaiey, K., Iqbal, M., & Bashir, S. (2018). Brain Training Games Enhance Cognitive Function in Healthy Subjects. Medical science monitor basic research, 24, 63–69.
3. Jarvis, M. (2017, March 21). Strategy-Based Video Games May Improve Older Adults’ Brain Function. Retrieved from https://www.aaas.org/news/strategy-based-video-games-may-improve-older-adults-brain-function
4. Mandolesi, L., Polverino, A., Montuori, S., Foti, F., Ferraioli, G., Sorrentino, P., & Sorrentino, G. (2018). Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 509.
5. CDC. (2018). Retrieved from https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf#page=66
6. How Sleep Clears the Brain. (2016, March 31). Retrieved from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-sleep-clears-brain
7. Harach, T., Marungruang, N., Duthilleul, N., Cheatham, V., Mc Coy, K. D., Frisoni, G., Bolmont, T. (2017). Erratum: Reduction of Abeta amyloid pathology in APPPS1 transgenic mice in the absence of gut microbiota. Scientific Reports, 7, 46856.
8. Davidson, R. J., & McEwen, B. S. (2012). Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 689-695.
9. Wesselman, L. M., Hooghiemstra, A. M., Schoonmade, L. J., De Wit, M. C., Van der Flier, W. M., & Sikkes, S. A. (2019). Web-Based Multidomain Lifestyle Programs for Brain Health: Comprehensive Overview and Meta-Analysis. JMIR Mental Health, 6(4), e12104.
Dr. Dawn Ferrara has over twenty years of clinical experience in the mental health field. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist as well as a Certified Health Coach. Dr. Ferrara is passionate about helping her clients find solutions that work and believes that every person has the power and ability to be successful. When not working, she can usually be found in the gym or spending time with her husband and their silly Black Lab, Riley, enjoying the sights and sounds of South Louisiana.