We all know the brain is an organ, not a muscle. But it’s like a muscle in one significant regard: It gets stronger the more we exercise it. And brain exercise is especially important as we get older. Every brain changes with age, and mental function changes along with it. But cognitive impairment and mental decline aren’t inevitable parts of the aging process.
No matter our age, all of us can take charge of our brain health and improve our own quality of life. It starts with learning why brain health is so important and understanding what activities we can do to keep our minds active and engaged.
Benefits of good brain health
Here’s something you probably didn’t learn in school: Humans have something called “brain reserve,” which helps our brains adapt and respond to changes and resist damage. Our brain reserve begins to develop in childhood and gets stronger as we move through adulthood.
If you continue to learn, embrace new activities, and develop new skills and interests, you’re building and improving your brain reserve. You’re also enjoying other benefits: You’re reducing your risk of dementia and cognitive decline, improving your memory and problem-solving abilities, and enhancing your emotional regulation.
Six Pillars of Brain Health
Using current brain research, in 2021 AARP unveiled the Six Pillars of Brain Health program. The program describes key recommendations on modifiable lifestyle factors that can affect brain health as we age. The pillars were vetted by AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health and its Staying Sharp program.
Adhering to these six pillars can help you take control of your brain health. Later on in this article, we’ll look at more-specific activities that you can apply to each pillar.
- Kick-start your curiosity. Learning new things and exposing yourself to new situations requires getting off your couch and into the world around you, but it pays dividends for brain health. You have to break out of your daily routine and discover exciting new skills. So, consider volunteering, taking a lifelong learning class, or taking up a hobby that interests you.
- Stay socially connected. A 2023 report released by the surgeon general found that loneliness is just as deadly as smoking. In fact, loneliness and social isolation contribute to a person having a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, and dementia, and they make people more susceptible to infectious diseases. Learning how to cultivate a “culture of connection” can actually lead to higher self-esteem, greater empathy, and more-trusting and cooperative relationships.
- Manage stress. You’d think that if you’re retired and no longer working 40-plus hours a week, you’d have nothing to be stressed about. But that’s simply not the truth. As human beings, we still have plenty of life situations to stress us out, from worries about finances to concerns over a loved one’s health. But we can manage our stress through techniques such as meditation, yoga, prayer, talking with a therapist, or seeking support from our friend group.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise is good for both the brain and the body, and it helps reduce stress levels. Experts recommend 150 minutes of weekly moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two or more days a week of moderate-intensity muscle-strengthening activities. Though 150 minutes may sound like a lot, it’s only about 30 minutes a day. And the good news is, you can spend that time doing any exercise you enjoy the most, from brisk walking to a game or two of pickleball.
- Get restorative sleep. Most adults need between seven and eight hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep every night. But sleep patterns change as we get older; we might find ourselves waking up often throughout the night or getting sleepy during the daytime. Try to set and stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule but listen to your body. If you need to adjust your patterns to take a nap, do it. Another tip: Don’t look at your phone once you get into bed. The blue light emitted by your cell phone screen restrains the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle.
- Eat right. This one’s easy: First, eat fewer sweets, carbs, and red meat and more fruits and veggies. You’ll want to avoid ultra-processed foods and eat more whole foods — for example, eat a variety of nuts instead of sugary peanut butter, or rotisserie chicken meat instead of processed lunchmeat. Second, consider adhering to some practices in the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. And third, remember to eat in moderation and stop eating when you feel full.
Brain-healthy activities to try
Experts will tell you that any mentally stimulating activity is good for your brain. Crossword puzzles, math problems, and drawing can all hone your memory, boost your concentration, and stimulate your brain cells. But if those aren’t your interests, there are plenty of other things to try. Here are just a handful of activities that are guaranteed to engage your mind. You might notice a few of these also cross over into helping you to get exercise or be more social, which is great — you want to engage as many of the Six Pillars of Brain Health as you can.
Take lifelong learning classes. Many colleges offer older adults the opportunity to audit college classes for a nominal fee. Some universities may offer online courses or allow you to attend in person. Most universities allow you to sit in or “audit” their classes at no cost. There’s nothing quite like learning about something that’s always fascinated you to stimulate the mind. Without the pressure of a grade attached to it, learning can be even more enjoyable.
Read more books — both fiction and nonfiction. Romance novels are fun, but to really give your brain that extra boost, try reading historical nonfiction or fact-filled nonfiction books. Both types can increase your intelligence by boosting your vocabulary and expanding your mental arsenal of interesting facts and knowledge. Historical fiction is also a great genre for stimulating your brain.
Learn a new language. Learning how to speak a new language is a great way to stimulate your brain, because language literally improves cognition and neuroplasticity. Try using apps like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone to teach yourself a language that interests you. Or make friends with someone who speaks a language you’d like to learn.
Learn how to play a musical instrument. You may already know how to play the piano, but if it’s been a while, take a refresher lesson or two. Or switch instruments entirely and learn how to play the clarinet, violin, or drums. You don’t have to be good enough to join a band; you just have to enjoy the experience of learning.
Take up a whole new sport or physical activity. We’re not saying you should join a rugby or flag football team (but if you’re in good physical health, why not?). Instead, consider taking up cycling, pickleball, hiking, birdwatching, golf, dancing, martial arts, or any physical activity that interests you. Sports are very social, too!
The lifestyle you want is waiting
Something that’s very worth mentioning in an article about keeping your mind active: Retirement communities like Searstone are big promoters of the Six Pillars of Brain Health. Searstone has services and amenities available to help residents stay active in mind, body, and soul; eat nutritious and delicious meals; stress less and enjoy more carefree days; and so on.
At Searstone, you’ll find evidence of the Six Pillars of Brain Health everywhere on our campus — including our engaging programs focused on Eight Dimensions of Wellness, our flexible dining program, our full-time Enrichment Coordinator and full-time Director of Resident Life & Wellness, our the state-of-the-art fitness center, common spaces such as a library, game room, indoor pool, outdoor walking paths, and much more – wellness is woven into the fabric of the community.
If you’re ready to enjoy all the opportunities to keep your mind active, we’ve got the perfect place to start. Talk to a member of our team by calling us at 919.705.0946 or visiting us online any time. If you’d prefer to come meet in person, we’d be happy to schedule a personal visit so you can tour our stunning Cary, North Carolina, campus.