As we get older, we soon find ourselves up against Father Time’s little game of takeaway. A look at signals of aging provided by WebMD offers an example of what one can expect to lose as we change in both mind and body as we age. Our bones, for example, tend to shrink in size and density as we age. An aging immune system operates slower and less powerfully than in one’s younger years. It’s common to lose 10% to 15% of your muscle mass and strength over your lifetime. A person’s brain starts to get smaller starting in their 30s and 40s, a process that speeds up around age 60. These changes call for relentless adjustments. The ups and downs aren’t the same for everyone. Genes, lifestyle and environment all play a role in your journey toward your twilight years. But one thing is certain: Adopting healthy habits early can help folks avoid some of these aging pitfalls.
A really encouraging reminder of how one can survive this journey recently came in the form of the story of Dr. Howard Tucker, a neurologist from Cleveland, Ohio, who has been named the “Oldest Practicing Doctor? by Guinness World Records. Dr. Tucker continues to practice medicine at the age of 101. In a byline piece on CNBC, his words of wisdom of how he has arrived at such longevity are worth considering.
“Good genes and a bit of luck can give you a head start, but there is one principle I live by that anyone can implement: Keep your mind engaged through work, social and entertainment activities… like any other muscle in the body, our mind needs consistent exercise to thrive,” he writes.
Tucker applies three rituals in boosting his brain health. He continues to go to work at a challenging job. When not on the job, for mental stimulation he volunteers for things and pursues learning new skills. He stays social. “Research has indicated that strong relationships may help maintain our memory and cognitive function,” he reminds us.
When not reading about the latest advancements and treatments in neurology, he likes to read for pleasure. Biographies and detective stories are his favorites. “I believe this is key to keeping your mind sharp,” he adds.
While we may agree that achieving and maintaining a state of cognitive wellness is an important life goal, how about the idea of giving your brain a regular, dedicated workout, like what you would do in maintaining your body health?
While staying physically active throughout adulthood has been linked in studies to better brain function later in life, including a stronger memory, what of exercises designed specifically for exercising the brain? The goal is to optimize brain health.
“Focusing on your brain health is one of the best things you can do to improve your concentration, focus, memory, and mental agility, no matter what age you are,” says a recent Healthline report. “By incorporating brain exercises into your everyday life, you’ll get to challenge your mind, sharpen your cognitive skills, and possibly learn something new and enriching along the way.”
Some of the evidence-based benefits of these exercises should not surprise you, such as the fact that working on a jigsaw puzzle is considered an excellent way to strengthen your brain. These puzzles were quite a popular diversion during the pandemic, but the popularity seemed to have faded away. “Research has shown that doing jigsaw puzzles recruits multiple cognitive abilities and is a protective factor for visuospatial cognitive aging (aging-related changes in visual sensory processing),” notes Healthline.
Maybe you will find better brain health is in the cards, by playing some. A study in 2015 on “mentally stimulating activities for adults” says “a quick card game can lead to greater brain volume in several regions of the brain,” says Healthline. “The same study also found that a game of cards could improve memory and thinking skills.”
According to Healthline, a 2014 study also shows that learning a new skill “can help improve memory function in older adults.” Writes psychosocial rehabilitation specialist Kendra Cherry in a recent Verywell Mind post, learning a new skill is a brain exercise that “requires a bit of commitment, but it is also one that just might give you the most bang for your buck. Learning something new is one way to keep your brain on its toes and continually introduce new challenges.”
Better yet, teach that new skill to someone else. “One of the best ways to expand your learning is to teach a skill to another person,” says Healthline. “After you learn a new skill, you need to practice it. Teaching it to someone else requires you to explain the concept and correct any mistakes you make.” It will be a win-win situation for you.
Underscoring these exercises is the basic concept of socializing. The benefits of engaging with others by now should be obvious. Numerous studies have shown that people who are socially active are also at a lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. According to Verywell Mind, “Even if you are an inveterate introvert, seeking social interactions can be beneficial to your brain in both the short and long term.”
A 2012 review of research has also pointed overwhelmingly to the many cognitive benefits of being able to speak more than one language. Says Healthline, “According to numerous studies, bilingualism can contribute to better memory, improved visual-spatial skills, and higher levels of creativity. Being fluent in more than one language may also help you switch more easily between different tasks, and delay the onset of age-related mental decline.”
If you want to take care of your mind, you need to start by taking care of your body. But it shouldn’t end there. People of all ages can benefit from incorporating a few simple brain exercises into their daily life.