Brain Fitness

Mental lapses happen to everyone. We forget a friend’s phone number even though we have called them hundreds of times before. We accidently call a family member by their sibling’s name instead of their own name – little things like that. However, as we age these mental lapses can become more frequent. This is so common, in fact, that many people refer to these mental lapses as “having a senior moment.” This raises the question, “Does aging have a negative effect on our brain?”

As we age and we aren’t as quick or agile as our younger selves once were. Our skin is less taut and we may have wrinkled faces. But what about the brain, how does it age? When viewed through a scan an older person’s brain does show slight signs of reducing in size, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a decline in cognitive ability.

Cognitive neuroscience is the form of psychology that evaluates brain activity relative to human thought. Cognitive neuroscience mainly focuses on how our behavior is shaped by our brain and which areas of the brain control certain functions like the formation of memories. New research conducted by cognitive neuroscientists shows that our brains aren’t atrophying the way that was previously assumed. In fact, our brains are, in a sense, pliable and able to adapt if one area of the brain needs to pick up the slack of another area. Just as people may reorganize their closets in a spring cleaning effort to make things more efficient, aging brains are also able to restructure themselves. By looking at MRI images and measuring the blood flow to various brain regions, scientists have discovered that aging adults use both sides of the brain as well as the frontal and posterior regions to complete a task; in contrast, younger people use only one lobe to complete the same task. These scientists also discovered that new brain cells are not just produced while we are young but are formed over the entire span of our lives. What’s interesting is that scientists have also found that partaking in certain activities helps fire up these new neurons and contributes to their long term endurance.

Activities that aging adults can do to help maintain their cognitive edge include:

  1. Study a new skill – Taking on a new activity that one has never tried before, like water color painting, ceramics or even learning about different computer programs, can really help stimulate new neuron development.
  2. Get moving! – Partaking in some form of physical activity like walking or chair yoga not only helps keep the body fit but also helps boost brain health, too.
  3. Be social – Getting together to socialize with others is great for maintaining cognitive harmony. Encourage your aging loved ones to communicate and recollect about their favorite memoires. Socializing for seniors not only helps stimulate their minds but also helps combat feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  4. Give the brain a workout – In addition to keeping one’s body fit, it is important to break a brain sweat, too. There are many websites that provide activities specifically designed to stimulate the brain and keep your mind sharp. Or if your senior doesn’t care for or is unfamiliar with computers, activities like crossword puzzles or Sudoku also provide great mental workouts.
  5. Sleep – Getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night helps recharge the body and also allows the brain to revamp itself.
  6. Be expressive – Practicing the arts like singing, playing an instrument, sketching and dancing are not only fun, but can help seniors’ brains stay sharp.
  7. Quit the tobacco – Not only is tobacco harmful to your body but smoking tobacco and smokeless tobacco also have negative effects on the release of various neurotransmitters in the brain’s pathways.
  8. Proper diet – Making sure your senior has a well-balanced diet of proteins, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and limiting artery clogging fats not only helps maintain a healthy heart but also preserves a healthy and sharpened brain as well.

If your senior is afraid of losing their mental edge, forgetting important names and dates or feeling like their most cherished memories are starting to fade, then you could suggest that they take part in some, if not all, of these suggested activities.

An aging brain isn’t something we should be afraid of. Just as we have to adapt our habits and activities to help maintain our aging bodies, we must do the same to help preserve our aging brains. As medical research advances and new discoveries are made we can expect to learn how our brains are aging and what factors from our lives influence our brain functions. Then we will be able to better understand the best practices to keep our brains in the best possible shape for the future.