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Brain Exercises

Benefits of Meditation
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Riddles and Puzzles
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Slowing Age-Related Cognitive Decline

A subscriber to my Brainpower Newsletter wrote to ask me about age-related declines in various brain functions. Specifically, she wanted to know which activities were best for preventing or slowing cognitive decline. This page is my response, but I want to make it clear that I am not a brain researcher. I simply report on research that has been done and I offer my opinions and ideas based on what I have learned from my reporting and my own experiences.

To start, I'm not sure if it is possible to say with any accuracy which activities are the "best" for the brain. For example, if doing crossword puzzles each day caused a better measurable result in most people than ten minutes of physical exercise each day, does that mean the former activity is better than physical exercise, or only better than ten minutes of aerobic exercise? Perhaps a fifteen or twenty minute walk each day would be better than the puzzles. Also, I suspect that any measurement of the effectiveness of different activities would depend on the person. Dietary changes might help one woman more than almost anything else, while good conversations might be better for improving the brain function of another.

With that in mind there are some basic ways we can accomplish the goal of boosting our brain power or staving off its age-related decline. Regardless of what the latest research shows to be most effective (or more effective) in general, as individuals we should probably experiment with the better possibilities from each of the basic approaches. When something is safe (and cost-free or inexpensive), why not give it a try? Then, once we find those things which help our own brains the most according to our experience, we can repeat them. The following are a few approaches for which I have seen enough evidence to use.

Brain Exercise

Numerous studies have shown that brain exercise is good for the brain. For example, Robert S. Wilson, a neuropsychologist at Rush University in Chicago, headed up a study which found that those who had done brain-exercising activities frequently during their school years had significantly less age-related decline in mental function later in life versus those who engaged in these activities less frequently. They looked also at the amount of brain-stimulating activities engaged in later in life, and here too found that more was better. Those who did the least amount of such activities saw 50 percent more cognitive decline than those who did an average amount.

The results of this particular study were published in the journal Neurology in July 2013, and reported in an article on LiveScience.com. Many other studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of brain exercise throughout life. Which mental activities qualify as good brain exercises? That answer(s) to that question will evolve with the research that is done, but common sense is probably not a bad guide. I suspect that my Saturday chess matches are better for my brain than watching television (and most of my opponents are very sharp mentally despite being much older than my 49 years). Here are some previous pages that offer more specific suggestions:

Neurobics

Neurobic Exercises

More Brain Exercises

Mind Work

This approach is similar to brain exercises, but more speculative in terms of its ability to slow mental decline. Recent research does show that meditation can slow the progression of age-related cognitive disorders. There was a good article in Psychology Today about this in November of 2013. But because meditation physically alters the brain it is more of a brain exercise than a "mind exercise." The distinction is not one commonly made, but I suspect that it's one worth making.

Neurobics and similar activities strengthen connections in the brain and lead to the formation of new dendrites, and this is something like building up one's "biological computer." But I suspect that learning to think more deeply and in new ways, even if it does not have direct physical effects, helps slow down mental decline. It seems likely that if it results in us being more engaged in life (which simply exercising the brain does not necessarily do), there will be positive effects. Consider, for example, the commonly noted tendency of people to die sooner when they retire. Dying is certainly a cognitive decline in the extreme, but I think only those who are more fully retired from life, rather than just a job, are affected.

I'll have more to say about this in the newsletter, but I have some pages that suggest activities I consider to be "mind work" of his sort (of course many of these various approaches overlap in any case). I have a two-part piece on self-observation and self-awareness that is a good place to start. It is difficult to understand just how biased and stuck-in-a-rut our thinking can be until we start to watch ourselves. After that you might want to read my page on deep thinking and my page on mindfulness exercises.

Physical Exercise

Benefits of physical exercise for the brain have been found in many studies. I have a page on physical exercise for brainpower that looks at the known benefits and the types of exercise that are most likely to be helpful. But what about slowing down age-related declines? Research shows that as well. You can read about some of the most recent studies on the government's National Institute of health website.

Dietary

In this category I include more than just food, because there are also drugs and other things we can take in order to boost brainpower, and possibly to slow down that mental decline that comes with age. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported on a study indicating that fish consumption slows age-related cognitive decline. But in any case this is an area where we can apply common sense even prior to the more rigorous scientific research being done.

For example, if the science shows that some foods are better for our brains, then eating those foods when we are older should mean our brains function better than they otherwise would. That better functioning qualifies as a slowing of mental decline in my opinion. For more on which foods to eat, see my page on brain foods. I also have a page about brain drugs.

Psychology

If you go to Google or any other search engine and type in "happy people live longer" you'll find reports on all sorts of research that shows just that. Now, whether or not being happier slows down the onset of various brain conditions or mental decline in general, my take is this: Death means total cognitive decline, so living longer means slowing that decline. Being happy (and having less stress) has been shown to have many health benefits for the body, including the brain, at any point in life.

Of course happiness as an approach to better brain function in old age overlaps with the idea of brain exercises and mind work, but then none of these categories is completely separate from the others. Regular physical exercise has been shown to make people happier, and exercise that combines hand-eye coordination can be considered as an exercise of both the brain and body. Don't worry too much about the categories and labels. If you want to think more clearly, and slow whatever decline in brain function you might be experiencing, just keep trying all of the various techniques to see which feel right for you and which have more measurable effects.


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