Exercising Your Brain Lowers Dementia Risk—And It Can Be Fun!

Close up of a senior, African American woman wearing headphones and using a digital tablet. She could be listening to music or an audio book.

For years, Mayo Clinic neuropsychiatrist Dr. Yonas Geda has been studying the effect of mental exercise on the brain. In 2009, Dr. Geda reported that activities such as reading books, playing cards or doing craft activities such as pottery or quilting could dramatically slow the rate of memory loss in older adults. (TV watching was not one of these activities; seniors who watched more than seven hours of TV per day experienced more memory loss.) Dr. Geda said, “This study is exciting because it demonstrates that aging does not need to be a passive process. By simply engaging in cognitive exercise, you can protect against future memory loss.”

Dr. Geda called for further research on the topic, and in 2017, he released a new study. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it found that seniors who took part in these brain-stimulating activities had a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that is considered to be the “intermediate zone between normal cognitive aging and dementia.”

These studies—and a number of others like it—are a reassurance that we don’t have to purchase special “brain building” products to protect our memory. Brain exercise isn’t just a matter of hard work. Neurologists have found that many activities we find pleasurable stimulate the growth of new cells and connections in the brain, and lower the level of harmful proteins that lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Here are a few that might surprise you!

Caring for a pet. Contact with animals offers emotional benefits, encourages socialization and decreases stress. Dog owners have a built-in incentive to go for a brisk brain-boosting walk or two each day. And spending time with animals reduces loneliness, an emotion that is so stressful for social creatures that it can damage our brains. Studies show that even watching fish in an aquarium lowers the level of the brain-damaging hormones in our body.

Do a good deed. We humans are wired to take pleasure in helping others. Neurologists say that altruism—selfless acting for the good of others—is linked to a reduction in stress and depression, both of which are very bad for our brains. Dr. Stephen G. Post of Stony Brook University School of Medicine said that if there were a pill that provided the same results as doing good for others, “It would be a bestseller overnight.”

Video games. While brain fitness programs are now a multibillion dollar industry, even popular mainstream video games can be protective against cognitive decline. For example, a study in the Archives of Neurology showed that the popular Angry Birds game provides a good brain workout. And researchers from North Carolina State University found that playing the World of Warcraft online role-playing game improved cognitive function in senior test subjects.

Music. Neurologists continue to study the complex way music works across many areas of the brain. Music helps people with dementia access memories and even remember new material. A number of studies showed that childhood music lessons can protect us from memory loss later in life. And it’s never too late: In January 2017, University of Pennsylvania researchers reported, “Taking music lessons in your 60s or older can boost your brain’s health, helping to decrease loss of memory and cognitive function.” So, buy a harmonica, take piano lessons, join a community choir or load up your music player with interesting new tunes to give your mind a stimulating boost.

Bingo. Last but not least, a new look at an old favorite! Activities professionals who work in nursing homes and senior centers sometimes complain about the “bingo stereotype,” but research from Case Western Reserve University showed that the game provides good mental exercise and improves thinking skills, even for players who have Alzheimer’s disease. So next time you call out B-I-N-G-O, remember that the real prize is a boost to brain health!

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise

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