4 Fun Ways to Keep Your Brain Fit

You know that exercising your body is important if you want to stay in shape. But did you know that brain fitness is just as important, especially as you age? Although it’s common to lose mental sharpness as we get older, research suggests that this is not inevitable. Studies show that adults who stay physically, socially, and mentally active throughout life maintain better cognitive function in their later years.1,2

Your brain isn’t fixed; it’s constantly reshaping itself in response to new stimuli. New neural connections are formed and strengthened with practice, while neural pathways that aren’t accessed as often are “pruned” away. Studies show that cognitive function tends to drop significantly after retirement,3 most likely because the brain is no longer being challenged and exercised in complex ways. In other words: you’ve got to use it or lose it.

The good news is that exercising your brain is also its own reward. Your brain likes to be challenged and stimulated in new and unexpected ways. It responds to mental exercise with mood-boosting reward chemicals to encourage you to keep using it. So don’t let yourself get stuck in a mental rut. You’ve got nothing to lose but boredom and dullness. Here are 4 fun ways to keep your brain fit.

1. Get a Reading Habit

Reading might seem like a passive activity, but it’s a neural workout for your brain. That’s because reading engages multiple parts of your brain, which all have to work together. You’re processing visual information, verbal information, sensory information, emotional information, conceptual information. You’re using memory, interpreting character psychology, picking up symbolism and references, and doing associative learning. It’s a complex and immersive virtual experience, and it has lasting effects on brain function.

Reading has been shown to heighten overall brain function and connectivity.4 Studies show that reading narrative literary fiction is linked with increased empathy and emotional intelligence,5,6 while poetic literary works are shown to increase mental flexibility by challenging the mind to make novel connections and discover fresh meanings.7 A handful of different studies have shown that actively reading throughout life can help maintain a healthier brain and preserve memory as you age,8,9 reducing the rate of memory decline by as much as 30%.10 One study even linked book reading with longer lifespan.11 

If you’re not already in the habit of reading, it’s never too late to start. Set aside some reading time before bed each night, or try listening to an audiobook while you walk or do chores. If books seem daunting, subscribe to a magazine on a topic that interests you. Joining a book club can make the activity more social and provide extra incentive to keep turning those pages. If you’ve got kids or grandkids, reading aloud to them can be an enjoyable bonding experience and keep everyone’s brains happily engaged.12,13

2. Learn Something New

Higher education levels are linked with better brain functioning later in life. This strongly suggests that advanced learning has lasting effects on the brain. Challenging your brain with new ideas, skills, and ways of thinking is thought to stimulate communication between brain cells and increase neural complexity. Researchers believe that this helps develop a habit of mental flexibility and builds up a “cognitive reserve” of complexity that your brain can draw on in later years to compensate for any age-related brain changes.

While it’s never too late to go back to school to pursue an encore career, life-long learning doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to get another degree. You could take a community college class in a subject that’s always interested you, develop your skills in a creative art or craft, or learn a new language. Studies show that learning new, complex skills over a sustained period of time helps maintain memory.14 Older adults involved in arts and crafts tend to have better cognitive function and a more balanced mood.15,16 Learning a second language has been shown to improve brain function and slow cognitive decline.17 It also comes in handy if you want to travel, which is another great way to step outside your comfort zone and broaden your horizons.

3. Keep Movin’

Age-related mental decline is often rooted in physical brain changes. As we get older, our brains physically shrink, due to decreased blood flow. Insulin resistance, triggered by chronically high blood sugar, makes it harder for the brain to effectively use glucose for energy. Inflammation in the brain is also strongly linked with dementia. But physical exercise has been shown to help reduce these harmful physical effects. 

What’s more, regular exercise actually has positive effects on brain structure. It helps stimulate the growth of healthy brain cells and synaptic connections, increases blood vessels in the brain, and has even been shown to increase the volume of brain regions associated with memory and learning.18,19 In one study, older adults who walked 200 minutes a week were able to reduce age-related brain shrinkage by 1-2 years and improve their memory function.20

While most of these studies use a simple aerobic exercise like walking, there are more fun ways to get your heart pumping. Try taking a dance class, joining a tennis or racquetball club, or taking your dog out for a hike. Try to get at least a half hour of activity in most days of the week. 

4. Widen Your Social Circle

Studies show a strong correlation between having an active social life and maintaining healthy cognitive function. In one study, older adults who were more socially isolated had twice as much memory loss over six years compared to those with more social connections.21 Other studies show that older adults who are socially engaged maintain better cognitive function and even have more gray matter in certain brain areas related to social cognition.22,23 And research shows that so-called “superagers” -- adults in their 80s who are as mentally sharp as those 20-30 years younger -- are more likely to have a strong network of positive relationships. Clearly, engaging with others is good for the brain.24

Humans are social animals, and our brains have evolved to be highly attuned to relationships. We have to work at relating to different kinds of people with different perspectives and personalities, but our brains are made for this kind of work. Through the work of relating to others, we are challenged to see things in new ways and to manage our emotions better. Our brains learn from engaging with other people’s brains. Of course, having good friendships is also good for our mental health, happiness, and self-esteem. We often get to know ourselves better by having close friends that we can share our thoughts and experiences with.

Joining a club, getting involved with a community cause, or taking a class are great ways to meet new, different people and stimulate your brain. But when it comes to relationships, quality counts more than quantity. Make a point of nurturing the good friendships you already have by keeping up with friend dates and regular communication, and those relationships will only grow richer over time.

It’s intuitive, really: living a full and interesting life is the best way to keep your brain engaged and active. The more fun you’re having, the easier it is to stay alert and on task. Keep stretching your brain with new, rich experiences, and you’ll be enjoying them for years to come.

References:

1. “Mental Exercise Nearly Halves Risk of Dementia.” Live Science, Jan 2006.

2. Evans, Karen. “How to Keep Your Brain Fit as You Get Older.” Greater Good Magazine, Aug. 2018.

3. Xue, B., Cadar, D., Fleischmann, M. et al. Effect of retirement on cognitive function: the Whitehall II cohort study. Eur J Epidemiol 33, 989–1001 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-017-0347-7

4.  Bergland, Christopher. “Reading Fiction improves Brain Connectivity and Function.” Psychology Today, Jan 2014.

5. Whiteman, Honor. “How Fiction Might Improve Empathy.” Medical News Today, July 2016.

6. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves ‘Mind-Reading’ Skills.” Science Daily, Oct. 2013.

7. “World Book Day: Reading Can Improve Your Mental Flexibility.” University of Liverpool, March 2016.

8. Cowen, Alan. “Brain Exercise and Alzheimer’s.” Matrix, UC Berkeley, Dec. 2014.

9. BATINI, Federico; TOTI, Giulia  and  BARTOLUCCI, Marco. Neuropsychological benefits of a narrative cognitive training program for people living with dementia: A pilot study. Dement. neuropsychol. [online]. 2016, vol.10, n.2 [cited  2020-11-18], pp.127-133. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S1980-5764-2016DN1002008.

10. Wilson, Robert S et al. “Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging.” Neurology vol. 81,4 (2013): 314-21. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829c5e8a

11. Bakalar, Nicholas. “Read Books, Live Longer?” The New York Times, Aug 2013.

12. “6 Simple Steps to Keep Your Mind Sharp at Any Age.” Harvard Health Publishing.

13.  “What Is Cognitive Reserve?” Harvard Health Publishing.

14. Park, Denise C et al. “The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: the Synapse Project.” Psychological science vol. 25,1 (2014): 103-12. doi:10.1177/0956797613499592

15. Geda YE, Topazian HM, Roberts LA, Roberts RO, Knopman DS, Pankratz VS, Christianson TJ, Boeve BF, Tangalos EG, Ivnik RJ, Petersen RC. Engaging in cognitive activities, aging, and mild cognitive impairment: a population-based study. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2011 Spring;23(2):149-54. doi: 10.1176/jnp.23.2.jnp149. Erratum in: J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2012 Fall;24(4):500. Lewis, Robert A [corrected to Roberts, Lewis A]. PMID: 21677242; PMCID: PMC3204924.

16. Kim, DeokJu. “The effects of a combined physical activity, recreation, and art and craft program on ADL, cognition, and depression in the elderly.” Journal of physical therapy science vol. 29,4 (2017): 744-747. doi:10.1589/jpts.29.744

17. Klimova, Blanka. “Learning a Foreign Language: A Review on Recent Findings About Its Effect on the Enhancement of Cognitive Functions Among Healthy Older Individuals.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 12 305. 30 Jul. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00305

18. Godman, Heidi. “Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills.” Harvard Health Publishing, April 2014.

19. “12 Ways to Keep Your Brain Young.” Harvard Health Publishing, Jan 2020.

20. Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, Basak C, Szabo A, Chaddock L, Kim JS, Heo S, Alves H, White SM, Wojcicki TR, Mailey E, Vieira VJ, Martin SA, Pence BD, Woods JA, McAuley E, Kramer AF. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Feb 15;108(7):3017-22. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015950108. Epub 2011 Jan 31. PMID: 21282661; PMCID: PMC3041121.

21. Ertel, Karen A et al. “Effects of social integration on preserving memory function in a nationally representative US elderly population.” American journal of public health vol. 98,7 (2008): 1215-20. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.113654

22. Evans IEM, Llewellyn DJ, Matthews FE, Woods RT, Brayne C, et al. (2018) Social isolation, cognitive reserve, and cognition in healthy older people. PLOS ONE 13(8): e0201008. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0201008

23. Cynthia Felix, MD, MPH, Caterina Rosano, MD, MPH, Xiaonan Zhu, PhD, Jason D Flatt, PhD, MPH, Andrea L Rosso, PhD, MPH, Greater Social Engagement and Greater Gray Matter Microstructural Integrity in Brain Regions Relevant to Dementia, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, , gbaa173, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbaa173

24. Cook Maher A, Kielb S, Loyer E, Connelley M, Rademaker A, et al. (2017) Psychological well-being in elderly adults with extraordinary episodic memory. PLOS ONE 12(10): e0186413. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0186413