You haven’t run for a while and when you finally do a few laps, your lungs are burning and your heart races. Or perhaps it’s been a long time between gym sessions, and the morning after a workout every muscle in your body aches, even muscles you never knew you had…
If we don’t use our muscles regularly, they get weaker and don’t work as well, which is why it’s hard going for that run or lifting those dumbbells after lifting nothing heavier than the TV remote for a while.
Our brain is also a muscle and if we don’t keep using it, at some point we may start to lose our brain power, too. Cognition, or how we think, how fast we think and our memory, are controlled by our brain, and these functions start to deteriorate if we don’t exercise our brain every day.
“For a long time we’ve known that age is one of the strongest risk factors for dementia, and we also know that the number one cause of death in women in Australia is dementia,” says Cassandra Szoeke, professor at the University of Melbourne’s Healthy Ageing Program and author of Secrets of Women’s Healthy Ageing: Living Better, Living Stronger.
“But when people talk about women’s health, they don’t think about brain health. Dementia is a degenerative disease — you lose brain cells and we can’t yet grow them back. If you look at the brain of someone before dementia, and then after they die from dementia, their brain shrinks. But the good news is there are many things we can do to keep our brain healthy as we age.”
Professor Sharon Naismith, Director of the Healthy Brain Ageing Program at the University of Sydney, agrees we can be proactive in keeping our brain fit and healthy.
She says eating a healthy diet, doing some kind of physical activity every day, getting enough good quality sleep, keeping an eye on blood pressure, cholesterol and our waistline, and doing activities that challenge and stimulate our brain can all make a difference.
“Many different types of cognitive function decline with age – how quickly we process information, problem solving, decision-making, multitasking – and it’s normal to expect some decline in those skills,” says Professor Naismith.
“But people often assume dementia is down to genes and there’s nothing they can do about it, and that’s simply not the case.”
So what can you do for your brain as the years tick over? You may be surprised…
Train your brain
Two to three times a week, try specially-designed brain training programs and games that make you dig deep into your grey matter. There are plenty of online games to play that focus on speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving, and which will deliver your daily brain training fix. Try out some of these…
1. Draw a map
From memory and with your eyes closed, try to draw a map of your suburb or neighbourhood. Include on it major roads and streets, plus local landmarks.
As this gets easier, draw maps of suburbs you are less familiar with or draw your city or state instead, and then compare what you’ve drawn to a map of the real thing.
2. Use the other hand
Late neurobiologist Professor Lawrence Katz said we can boost our brain power by switching hands to do everyday tasks such as eating and writing. So if you’re right-handed, spend some of the day doing tasks with your left hand and vice versa.
He says that some of the most effective activities for our brain are the things that we find most difficult to do.
3. Get dressed with your eyes closed
Using our senses to their full extent also helps stimulate our brain, said Professor Katz. By limiting the use of one sense, you can force your other senses and your brain to work harder. An example would be getting dressed or having a shower with your eyes closed, so your brain is forced to rely on your sense of touch.
4. Dance like nobody’s watching
Studies have shown that dancing – from ballroom to breakdancing – has a positive brain effect. Some clinicians in the US are now using dance to treat people with Parkinson’s disease due to its positive impacts on different areas of the brain. A study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found dancing lowered the risk of dementia in the elderly, perhaps because it combines mental effort with social connection, which is also important for good mental health. Another US study also found that Zumba improves mood and memory.
5. Turn things upside down
Force your brain to work harder to process and label visual information by turning pictures upside down. Professor Katz said the left brain quickly labels things, while our right brain relies on non-verbal cues. So when we look at pictures that are the right way up, our left brain labels them, but when pictures are upside down, the left brain is unsettled and our right brain goes to work to try to work out what we are seeing.
6. Match pairs
All you need for this brain game is a deck of cards. The aim is to match as many pairs as quickly as you can by laying the cards face down, turning over two cards at a time and trying to remember where the matching cards are.
7. Try Tetris
The puzzle game Tetris has been around since 1984, but it has lasted the test of time and is still helping our brain develop its efficiency and organisational capabilities. It draws on our spatial skills, as we have to mentally rotate and visualise how the differently shaped blocks can best fit together.
8. Do more than crosswords – knit!
Challenging your brain with new and complex problems builds cognitive resilience and cognitive reserve. Essentially, throwing new challenges at it keeps it sharp.
“If you keep learning or have a job with complexity to it, you enrich the connectedness between brain cells,” says Professor Naismith. “And if you have better connections, if eventually you do get a disease like Alzheimer’s, you’ll be able to buffer it for longer“.
“Even if you retire, do something to keep your brain active and challenged – and do more than crosswords.”
Your brain may even benefit from picking up knitting needles. A study found that women who knit reported feeling less stressed – and they felt their brain performed better, too.
9. Get moving
“The number one thing we can do for our brain health is daily exercise,” says Professor Szoeke. “It doesn’t matter what you do – it might be gardening or walking the dog – but exercising is important.”
A study by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and the University of Western Australia found morning exercise and brief periods of walking during the day are good for short-term memory. Exercise boosts a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF), strengthening the brain neurons that transmit information.
“Physical activity is a wonder drug for the brain, with studies showing aerobic exercise and resistance training have beneficial effects,” says Professor Naismith. Exercise also plays a role in a process called neurogenesis that promotes the growth of new brain cells in areas of the brain associated with memory.