We have all heard the saying “use it or lose it”, and that is true with our cognitive functioning as well. Certain cognitive changes are to be expected with aging. The biggest age-related change is the speed at which we are able to process and recall information. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections in the brain. This is important because it can allow the brain to utilize different pathways to relay “messages” and instructions if a particular pathway is damaged. Think of it as a car driving through city streets. If a street is closed off for some reason, the car can take a different route if available, to get to their destination. If nothing is available however, the car is stuck and can’t get to where they want to go. So, building up different connections and pathways is a good thing. There are activities we can do to help preserve our cognitive functioning and form those connections.
- Exercise! We have already discussed this in a previous blog, but exercise is the number one thing you can do to retain and form those connections in the brain. Shoot for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. Remember – what is good for our heart is good for our brain. Dancing, by the way, is a great activity that engages not only the body but the brain.
- Stay socially connected. We have discussed this as well in a previous blog. Socializing activates a variety of areas in the brain. Do it safely, however, right now, with the need for physical social distancing.
- Learn something new – and challenging. Try learning a new language, learn to play an instrument, take up a new hobby, or take an on-line course. There are many on-line offerings to keep your brain engaged. Babbel can teach you a new language. The Great Courses can be accessed on-line, and they also offer courses on DVD. One can take classes via i-Tunes University or Coursera.
- Crossword puzzles, sudoku, etc. These are fine to do, but research indicates that activities need to be challenging, so don’t always go for the easy ones. Brain games have had mixed results, but many research studies have not found them to be beneficial. This may be because they are not challenging enough. Try to increase difficulty levels as you are able and stick to more evidence-based approaches like exercise and learning new things.
- Mix up your daily routine. Try brushing your teeth or learning to write with your non-dominant hand. Take a different route to the grocery store.
- Read, visit museums, travel (virtually right now). With the COVID-19 present, it is advised that older adults stay at home. There are still many ways to explore new things. I have listed some of them here.
It is believed that people with a high level of what’s referred to as “cognitive reserve” are able to resist the ill effects of cognitive damage more effectively. Simply stated, cognitive reserve is the brain’s resistance to damage. It is developed over a lifetime and can allow an individual to cope with setbacks later in life, like dementia. There have been cases where physical damage of the brain is evident, yet the individual functions quite well. In other cases, an individual may not have nearly as much damage, but struggles to function as well as the other individual. Some researchers attribute this to cognitive reserve. Things that build up cognitive reserve are the things we have been discussing – being engaged, learning new things, and exercising. Try to incorporate these things on a daily basis to increase the brain’s neuroplasticity as well as build up that cognitive reserve.