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Posted on Jun 08, 2020, 7 p.m.

Keeping your brain as healthy and fit as your body is important, simply learning new things can be one of the best ways to help improve brain health. 

With age humans not only lose muscle over time, the brain can atrophy as well, specifically the cognitive reserve, which is the ability to withstand neurological damage due to aging and other factors without showing signs of memory loss. 

Just as using weights while working out can help to add lean muscle to the body as well as help to retain more muscle in later years, it is now believed that following a brain healthy lifestyle along with performing regular targeted brain exercises can help to increase your cognitive reserve.

The connections between lifestyle and dementia risk were detailed in a study published in PLOS ONE. This study involved 2,235 men who were followed for 30 years, tracking and measuring their participation in 5 healthy lifestyle behaviors: regular physical activity, optimal BMI, high fruit and vegetable produce intake, non-smoking, and low-moderate alcohol intake. Those who followed 4-5 of these behaviors were found to be 60% less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia. 

"Approaches to brain health include a well-balanced diet low in fat, low in cholesterol, and high in antioxidants," says Robert Bender, MD, medical director of the Johnny Orr Memory Center and Healthy Aging Institute in Des Moines, Iowa.

Along with maintaining good nutrition, regular exercise can help to promote vascular health which will help to protect brain tissues. It is also important to change up the exercise routine and diet with a variety of healthy foods and choices to avoid ruts and boredom. 

"The brain wants to learn new things," says Dr. Bender, noting that some researchers believe that people are more vulnerable to dementia when they pay less attention to the things around them. "When the brain is passive, it has a tendency to atrophy," he adds. For this reason, sedentary and relatively passive activities, such as sitting in front of a TV for hours a day, can be detrimental to brain health over time.

To go along with a healthy diet and exercise routine there are ways to give your brain a workout without special equipment or draining your wallet. While there are many brain training software programs, there aren't really any studies showing any significant neurological benefit to older adults. For example one review published in PLOS Medicine examined 52 different studies on computerized cognitive training on 4,885 participants to find that these games are not particularly effective in improving brain performance. Most experts will recommend brain training that involves real world activities and exercises that strengthen brain functioning, and these should offer novelty and challenge. 

"Almost any silly suggestion can work," says David Eagleman, PhD, neuroscientist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. "Drive home via a different route; brush your teeth with your opposite hand. The brain works through associations [which is why it's easier to memorize lyrics to a song than it is to try and remember the same words without music], so the more senses you involve the better."

“Simple games like Sudoku and word games are good, as well as comic strips where you find things that are different from one picture to the next," says John E. Morley, MD, director of St. Louis University's Division of Geriatric Medicine and author of The Science of Staying Young. In addition to word games, Dr. Morley recommends the following exercises to sharpen your mental skills:

Memory recall: Make a list of things you need, to do, or anything else that you can think of and memorize it. After an hour or so try to recall as many items as you can. You can change this up by making the list more challenging for the greatest mental stimulation and even trying to recall the list while being physically active.

Music: Learning to play a musical instrument or joining a choir/learning new songs can be ideal for the aging mind. Studies show that learning something new and complex over a longer period of time may be great for keeping the aging mind in top shape.

Math: Anyone can figure out math problems on paper, but figuring out math problems without the aid of a pencil, paper, or computer is more challenging. You can make this more challenging by trying to figure these problems out when being physically active or walking at the same time. 

Cooking classes: Learning how to cook, or learning how to cook a new cuisine uses a number of your senses such as smell, touch, taste, and sight. All of this uses different parts of your brain, on top of memory to provide a great mental workout. 

Foreign language: The process of listening, hearing, and remembering a new language stimulates the brain. Additionally, studies show that a rich vocabulary is linked with a reduced risk for cognitive decline. 

Word picture: Try creating a word picture by visualizing the spelling of a word in your mind, then try to think of and list any other words that begin/end with the same 2 letters. You can get creative with this and try to form the words into an actual line drawing. 

Maps: After returning home from visiting a new place, draw a map of the area, repeat this for every new location, or for one you haven’t been to in a long time then go there to see how well you did. 

Taste buds: When eating or drinking try to identify all of the individual ingredients in the meal including all of the subtle herbs and spices. This may seem simple, but many find it harder than they thought it would be. 

Hand eye coordination: Learning a new hobby that requires fine motor skills such as painting, puzzles, drawing, knitting, or building models challenges the brain while building/refining your hand eye abilities. 

Take up a new sport: Learning a new physical activity such as golf, yoga, tennis, badminton, dancing or croquet, will utilize both the mind and body and it carries many benefits backed by science.

People are beginning to realize that they can take steps to help keep their brains healthy, just as they can to help keep the body healthy to prevent developing diseases such as heart disease by taking certain actions and making certain lifestyle changes. 

"In the coming decade, I predict brain wellness to be right up there with heart health — now that there's proof that living a brain-healthy lifestyle works,” says Bender.

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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement.

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