Mental stimulation can take many forms. Learning a new language and traveling to new destinations are just a couple of examples. But even simpler activities, such as taking up a new hobby, can boost brain activity. And in a study published earlier this year, researchers found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities may help lower the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.
Regularly engaging in brain-boosting exercises can have a positive impact on the health of five major brain functions. They include: executive attention, memory, verbal skills, motor and visuospatial skills, and executive function.
“Older individuals who remain mentally active and who take advantage of opportunities to learn new information seem to be significantly less likely to show signs of mental decline,” says Louisa Sylvia, PhD, associate director of psychology at Mass General’s Bipolar Clinic and Research Program. “For this reason, we advise our patients to find a range of mentally challenging activities that they enjoy, and to make them an important part of their daily routines.”
Here is more about those five major brain functions and the types of exercises that may help keep those functions thriving.
#1 Executive Attention
Executive attention is the ability to block out potentially distracting information so you can maintain your focus. Unfortunately, older brains have a tougher time with focus and attention than their young counterparts. Whatever you can do to bolster your ability to concentrate and pay attention will help you with everything from driving to following your doctor’s treatment advice.
To give your executive attention a workout, try a few of the following exercises:
- Change up your usual routines to force your brain to focus on something new. It could be a new route to the store or your doctor’s office.
- Study a picture showing a group of people or a lot of activity. Then put the picture away and write down as many details as you can remember.
- Read a complicated newspaper article while the television is on. Then list as many details as you can from the article. This is a good test to see how well you can block out a distraction like TV.
There are actually several types of memory, some of which are more likely to decline with age than others. Episodic memory (what did I eat for dinner last night?) and source memory (where did I read about that new movie?) tend to decline faster than procedural memory (riding a bicycle) or semantic memory (state capitals).
All types of memory come down to the ability to recall information. To challenge your memory and recall skills, give these activities a try:
- Spend the next week trying to remember birthdays, phone numbers, addresses and other numbers without relying on written reminders. See how much you can recall at the end of the week.
- Memorize one poem per week.
- Challenge yourself to remember as many U.S. presidents, state capitals, and nations of the world as you can. Give yourself five minutes per list.
- Recall details from your past. For example, list your friends from school or addresses from previous residences.
#3 Verbal Skills
Your vocabulary tends to remain pretty well intact as you get older. However, recalling the right word as you’re talking starts to get more difficult. You may stop halfway through a sentence, searching for the word you want. It’s not that the words are lost. It’s just that retrieving words from your memory is a little tougher in an older brain.
For a good word workout, try these exercises:
- Take the words in a random sentence from a book or article and try to rearrange them into another sentence.
- Pick two letters from the alphabet and list as many words as you can that contain both letters.
- Choose one letter and then a category, such as cities or brand names, and list all the examples you can that start with that letter.
#4 Motor and Visuospatial Skills
Motor skills can be divided into two groups: gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills include large movements, such as walking and jumping. Fine motor skills are more precise movements done with smaller muscles, such as writing with a pen or building a model. Visuospatial skills are those that help you perceive where you are in relation to the objects and people around you, as well as understand the relationships of objects to one another.
To hone these skills that require communication between the brain and your muscles, try these activities:
- Learn to juggle.
- Learn sleight-of-hand magic tricks.
- Take up a sport, such as volleyball or tennis, and practice to improve your skills.
- Take a dance class—ballroom, swing, tap, whatever you enjoy.
Executive function is actually a set of skills you need to plan, organize, make decisions, solve problems, manage your time, and handle many other everyday and long-term tasks.
To help get your brain thinking ahead, set your mind to these challenges:
- Play strategy games, such as chess and Scrabble.
- Write a story with a complex plot and many characters.
- Plan and execute a project that requires design, such as a garden or other home improvement.
What the Research Shows
In a study published in JAMA Neurology (Jan. 30, 2017), a group of cognitively healthy people ages 70 and older who participated in activities such as computer use, crafts, games and social activities experienced a significantly lower risk of developing new-onset mild cognitive impairment. Study participants who engaged in these activities once or twice a week had a lower risk of cognitive decline than those who engaged in such activities two or three times a month or less.
“There is growing evidence that regular mental stimulation actually fosters brain-cell growth and boosts the number of connections among brain cells,” Dr. Sylvia says. “This type of growth may protect against the tendency of older brains to atrophy over time, and help preserve a more youthful and efficient brain.”