Yes! Much like regular exercise can help to slow the physiological effects of age, so can mental exercises help to keep your brain strong and healthy.
Cognitive decline and memory loss are common symptoms of the aging process. “Dementia” is not a disease, but a catch-all term for severe cognitive decline. It can be caused by Alzheimer’s Disease, another specific mental health issue, or just damage to nerve cells brought on by physical age. Brain exercises are, of course, unlikely to cure any disease. But, they can sharpen the connections between nerve cells and keep brain cells healthier, extending the life of their function. Numerous studies have suggested that engaging in more mentally stimulating activities throughout life is associated with better cognitive function, reduced cognitive decline, and a reduced risk of developing dementia.
What are the best mental exercises for reducing the risk of dementia?
Before you start wasting your money and/or any more time staring at your smartphone, you should know that commercial “brain training games” and computer programs have not been proven to reduce the risk of dementia. Staring at the screen is actually the opposite of what you should do. Recent research suggests that activities offering the greatest benefit, in terms of reducing dementia risk, are leisure activities (as in, ones that you actually enjoy) that combine mental, social, and physical components.
This could include walking (physical) around a museum (mental) with a loved one (social), playing tennis, joining a tai chi group, learning a choreographed dance with a partner or friends (line dancing?), or taking a pottery class. Of course, COVID precautions may make some of these activities difficult at present, but it is possible to stimulate the mind, body, and heart outdoors, with masks, and at a distance. Brainstorm activities you like that contain all three of these aspects.
Activities that only use one or two of the three aspects (physical, mental, or social) can still be beneficial, as long as they involve new learning, are reasonably complex, varied and interesting, and engaged in regularly. For example, other activities associated with a reduced risk of dementia are reading, listening to the radio, taking a class on a topic of interest, learning a new language (bonus if you have a friend to practice with), practicing a musical instrument, joining a sports team, gardening, participating in a cultural or philanthropic club, playing board games, or doing crosswords and other puzzles.
What if I (or a loved one) have already been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease?
If it’s not the risk, but the progression of a disease that you worry about, mental exercise can still provide a benefit. Committing to regular brain exercises later in life can still keep brain cells and their connections strong, compensating for some of the damage caused by Alzheimer’s or other diseases. There is evidence to show that the onset of dementia or progression of functional decline may be delayed if a person stays socially and mentally active.
The social aspect of an activity is even more important after a dementia diagnosis. Interacting with other people, social participation, and communication may be even more important than the mental exercise itself.
People in later stages of dementia may have difficulty with some of the activities listed above for risk reduction. However, it is important to continue participating in the activities you enjoy, just find ways to modify them to reduce frustration. Stress, like that caused by frustration, is related to poor sleep and reduced memory capacity.
People in later stages of dementia may enjoy simpler exercises that relate to their own interests
and capabilities. Activities like reading aloud from books, storytelling, memorizing lines and acting in a skit or play, imagery exercises that stimulate the senses, dancing to music, playing musical instruments, or listening to music, are all activities that can include others, stimulate the brain, and can be modified for physical capability level.
Are there exercises that actually improve memory, cognition, and focus?
If, rather than slowing cognitive decline, your interest lies in sharpening your ability to think and remember, that is a whole different ball game. Yes, there are exercises that can help you achieve these goals. And again, smartphone games are not your best bet. Choose concrete exercises that train your brain to compute faster, recall faster, and generally function faster. A great, free resource for some such activities is the Magnetic Memory Method website and podcast (link: https://www.magneticmemorymethod.com/brain-exercises/?fbclid=IwAR1ezkNpU8iyCvRZSkOuPHRxwMk81gJd0i9PH3kvCgDFTVEkZ8tNgWmkBWQ)
One activity provided by Magnetic Memory Method is an observation and recall exercise that can be done throughout your day to boost your memory. It starts by noticing a random person on the street. What are 4 things you can observe about them? Things like brown hair, red shirt, aviator sunglasses, and basketball shoes. At the end of the day, try to remember all four things. If observing and recalling 4 details on one person is easy, try two people the next day, three on the third day, so on and so forth, or increasing the number of details about each. Asking your memory to recall information is a memory exercise. The more challenging the information, the more exercise your brain will get.
Magnetic Memory Method also emphasizes the importance of numbers for a cognitive boost. Doing addition and subtraction exercises can get your brain moving faster. For example, choose any three-digit number. Add 3 to that number 3 times, then subtract 7, 7 times. Repeat this activity starting from 5 different 3-digit numbers.
To practice concentration and focus, try clapping over metronome clicks. The slower you turn the metronome, the more difficult it will become to predict the clicks. The more often you practice this, the better you will get, and the better you will become at staying focused on a task. It is also a great practice in mindfulness, as you are forced to stay in-the-moment through an activity like this.
How important is nutrition for cognition and cognitive decline?
So important! Never forget that you are what you eat and your body can’t make new cells or repair the old ones without the right materials coming from the diet. Some nutrients have specific benefits to the structure and activity of brain cells, neurotransmitter production, or cognitive function. If you are curious about the best supplements and specific nutrients to support your brain, check out the other blog posts we have shared this month.
- Dementia Australia. “Mental Exercise and Dementia”. Dementia Australia 2020. Reviewed 2016.
- Metivier, Anthony. “9 Brain Exercises That Ensure Memory Improvement.” Magnetic Memory Method. April 5, 2021. https://www.magneticmemorymethod.com/brain-exercises/?fbclid=IwAR1ezkNpU8iyCvRZSkOuPHRxwMk81gJd0i9PH3kvCgDFTVEkZ8tNgWmkBWQ