How Mental Stimulation Helps the Aging Brain

Cognitive health — the ability to clearly think, learn, and remember — is an important part of everyday life. It’s one aspect of overall brain health (the others are motor function, emotional function, and tactile function).

As we age, our cognitive abilities naturally decline – even in the absence of conditions such as Alzheimer’s or other dementias. The most important changes, says Dr. Daniel L. Murman of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, Neb., are “speed of [information] processing, working memory, and executive cognitive function.” Cognitive function includes things like planning, organizing, and self control.

Some studies have shown that we can make lifestyle choices that will help prevent or slow decline in our cognitive abilities. “Healthy lifestyles may decrease the rate of cognitive decline seen with aging and help delay the onset of cognitive symptoms,” says Dr. Murman. As you might guess, “healthy lifestyle” includes things like getting regular physical activity, managing chronic health conditions, and avoiding smoking and too much alcohol. Importantly, it also includes what he calls “mental stimulation.”

Lowering the risk of mild cognitive impairment

Other researchers agree. “Mentally stimulating activities perhaps in combination with known healthy life styles such as exercise are simple and inexpensive activities that can potentially protect people against the development of mild cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Yonas E. Geda of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., in a Reuters article. A study headed by Dr. Geda reported these effects on the risk of mild cognitive impairment on people aged 70 and older:

  • 22% lower risk among those who played games
  • 23% lower risk among those engaged in social activities
  • 28% lower risk among those who worked on craft projects
  • 30% lower risk among those who used computers

Whether they’re living in their own home or reside in a senior living community, older people should strive to engage in activities that include solving problems, learning, and remembering. Here are some ideas from the National Institute on Aging:

  • Engage in personally meaningful activities, such as volunteering or hobbies.
  • Learn new skills, such as photography, quilting, or a new language.
  • Take or teach a class.

Researchers note that these types of activities are more complex than simply playing games or reading, although those certainly help keep the mind active. Their complexity – requiring planning, remembering, and problem solving, are what make them more valuable than games or reading. Importantly, they usually also involve a social element.

How we can help

As we advise our clients, aging well is multifaceted. Keeping the brain sharp is important at any age. At LifeCare Advocates we spend time getting to know our clients in order to help them integrate creative ways of bringing ways to keep their minds active in a way that is meaningful to them.

Categories: Healthy Aging