Inevitably, cognitive decline, meaning loss of cognitive function, occurs as we get older. Cognitive function is the ability of your brain to process and recall information through skills like perception, memory, learning, attention, problem solving, decision making, and language. You hear it a lot and it is true in this case: “Use it or lose it.” The good news is that the brain can be strengthened like any other muscle, no matter our age. It has a quality of plasticity, allowing it to bend and shape. This enables us to slow the mental decline, even as older adults.
Good nutrition, as well as physical and mental exercise, contribute to brain health. All three increase blood flow to the brain, thus improving and maintaining cognition. Continued effort in these areas stimulates the growth of new brain cells. These brain cells are active and able to get easier access to the blood supply, oxygen, and nutrients. As a result, more and more interrelated neurons develop, creating a dynamic network of active and healthy synapses.
So how do we whip the inactive brain cells into shape? We certainly can’t do so by repeating the same things we’ve always done. To train our brains, we must stimulate them with new habits, activities, and experiences. If your loved one does not live in a senior living community, it may be hard for him or her to engage in activities with similarly-aged peers. Caregivers can introduce some of the following activities to help activate their neural functioning, which will also contribute to a healthy lifestyle. It is best to view our brain activity as just as important to our overall health and wellness as what we eat and how much we exercise.
Let’s get out of the old rut and get to training that brain! In this article, we will explore some of the best ways older adults can stimulate their brains and improve cognitive function. We here at CareAsOne recommend the following 5 brain-stimulating activities for the elderly.
1. Brain Games
Whoever said games were a waste of time? Not only are they fun (and addicting), but also games enable your mental processes to become clearer and keep your mind sharp. Brain exercises are like sports for the mind. They encourage the improvement of brain functions like memory, flexible thinking, focus, and processing speed. Cognitive training stimulates our brains, thus engaging neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of neural networks to grow and reorganize. This allows the brain to always change and adapt throughout our lifetime.
There are so many different kinds of games out there, each strengthening specific sets of our cognitive skills. Here are a few of them your loved one may want to try out for increased mental stimulation:
Trivia games cater to all kinds of interests. There are general trivia games, but there are also games that have themes based on TV shows, movies, music, pop culture, and even religion. You can even find trivia relating to specific decades.
Trivia games can be helpful for seniors to stimulate their recall skills associated with their memory. This type of game encourages them to think about events of the past or facts they have learned but would not otherwise remember. Trivia also enables the players to learn new facts. And not only does playing these types of games enable your loved one to enhance memory and learning, but it also allows them quality time with friends and family, a vital component of old age.
Jigsaw puzzles are not only relaxing, but they are also great for enhancing problem-solving skills. This is because the puzzle requires you to pay attention to details and patterns, utilizing your working memory. It also encourages the use of spatial skills and concentration. The best thing about jigsaw puzzles is that they are straight-forward and can be done by anyone. You can also leave the puzzle and come back to it after a while.
If you feel like doing a detailed 1000-piece puzzle may be difficult for your loved one’s eyesight, you can easily find jigsaw puzzles with large pieces, or you can find a puzzle online that allows you to zoom in.
Another great brain game is crosswords. This type of puzzle requires critical thinking as well as memory recall. The fact that only simple hints are given encourages the person to assess their spectrum of knowledge on the subject, to see what fits. This is a fun one to do with friends or family to utilize everyone’s shared knowledge to work together.
Riddles and Other Logic Puzzles
Logic puzzles are great word games for older adults. The player must combine their ideas and background knowledge to find a plausible answer. Problem-solving ability is key when you must associate your ideas with possible solutions. It also promotes pattern-recognition and memory skills.
Sudoku is a game based on numerical patterns and is great for improving problem-solving and pattern-recognition skills. The puzzle comes in varying levels of difficulty, allowing you to work your way up from an easy to advanced level. Seeing your improvement will make you want to keep getting better and better.
Card games are another popular way for seniors to keep their brains active. Not only are they good for cognition, but they also encourage social interaction, and can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Some popular card games amongst older adults include:
- Chinese poker
- Big two
2. Learn a New Skill
As we age, the brain develops neural pathways between common thoughts. These pathways enable us to perform familiar tasks, solve recurring problems, and help us recall and process data at a quick pace. Because these neural pathways are well worn, they allow us to do these things without expending a lot of mental energy. However, if you always stick to these paths, it will be extremely difficult to develop new neural pathways. This also means you aren’t growing and shifting with the world around you.
It is imperative to constantly be developing new pathways to keep your brain running smoothly as well as stimulated. The more you challenge your brain, the better the ability you will have to process and recall information. However, not all activities equally stimulate your mind. The most helpful activities are the ones that break your traditional ways of thinking, enabling you to create new brain pathways. To find the best kind of activity that will suit your or your loved one’s brain growth the most would have the following elements:
- New: Pick something you’ve never done before. If it is something that you have experienced, it will not stimulate new pathways. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and try to learn something completely unfamiliar to you. Think of something you’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t. Now is the time to try!
- Challenging: What you pick out should not be easy. It needs to demand your constant attention and concentration. If it was only challenging first, it is still not good enough. The mental effort you constantly put forth will allow you to keep forging the neural path.
- Room for Improvement: Find something that you can start from a beginner level and work your way up. Not only does the improvement spur your motivation, but it will also cause you to stretch what you are capable of.
- Rewarding: Choose an activity that will be enjoyable for you. That way you will be more likely to keep doing it! If you are truly interested and enjoy the activity you are participating in, the more benefits you will experience as times go on.
New Skills for Brain Stimulation
With these four elements in mind, think of something that you would love to learn. Here is a list of some possible ideas:
- Learn a musical instrument
- Make pottery
- Learn to juggle
- Play chess
- Dance the tango, waltz, salsa, or another type of dance
- Learn a new language
- Master your golf swing
- Learn to draw
- Take a cooking class
- Download a new app on your phone and learn to use it
- Learn Photoshop
3. Physical Exercise
Although we are talking about activities for the brain, you may be surprised that physical exercise is one of them. Physical activity is not just for the body, but for the mind as well. Keeping in shape helps your brain stay sharp. This is because exercise increases oxygen to the brain, enhances chemical effects, reduces stress, promotes synapses formations, and boosts growth factors for neuroplasticity. Research shows that those who exercise can reduce risk factors of diabetes and heart disease, as well as those at risk of dementia and other cognitive impairments.
Keeps You Alert
Consider pursuing an exercise routine in the morning. Doing so will cause you to avoid the normal brain fog you may usually have when you wake up. Getting your body up and moving will allow your mind no choice but to follow. And getting such a great start in the morning will get your mind ready to take on any challenges in the day.
Implement short exercise breaks throughout the day. This is helpful when you are worn with mental fatigue, usually sometime in the afternoon. Moving your body can restart your brain to whatever task is at hand. Some examples of quick exercises can be toe touches or a brisk walk around the house.
Just about any exercise that is good for your heart is good for your brain. This includes aerobic exercise which gets your blood pumping and your heart rate up. Some examples of aerobics would be brisk walking, jogging, biking, dancing, and swimming. It is also helpful to choose activities that require hand-eye coordination for the sharpening of motor skills.
Walks are an especially great exercise targeted for the brain if you can do so comfortably. Walking in nature is especially beneficial. Not only does it allow for socialization with others as you walk, but it also promotes calm, relaxation, and independence. Older adults may feel more connected to their surroundings, as well as themselves on a nature walk. They will rely on their senses to perceive details around them, including landmarks and animals. Remembering these details later will help anchor their memory. And the best way to experience a walk in a way that all details are fully experienced is through mindfulness.
4. Mindfulness & Meditation
Going on mindful nature walks will not only keep you physically active, but the incorporation of mindfulness will allow you to increase attention span, let go of unimportant distractions, and increase your overall cognition. You can incorporate mindfulness into your walk by feeling the sensations of your body, concentrating on your breath, as well as listening to the environment around you. Besides nature walks, yoga, stretching, or tai chi are great ways to merge your mind and body.
Incorporating mindfulness into other areas of your life is a great antidote for stress. Chronic stress can damage the hippocampus. This important part of the brain helps us form new memories and remember old ones. Therefore stress can be responsible for some loss of memory.
You can take it a step further and try mindfulness meditation. There have been many studies done highlighting the positive effects of meditation on conditions like depression, anxiety, diabetes, chronic pain, and high blood pressure. It is also beneficial for learning, reasoning, memory, creativity, concentration, and focus. People who meditate have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain. This part has been linked with the feelings of joy and equanimity. Meditating can thicken the cerebral cortex and help develop more neural pathways which will sharpen your mind and encourage memory. So now that we see how beneficial mindfulness and meditation can be, let’s get you started with some easy mindfulness exercises.
- Focus on the breath: Whether standing in line, sitting at your desk, laying in bed, or sitting on a meditation cushion, practice the following exercise. First, when you breathe in, be mindful that you are taking an in-breath. Then when you breathe out, be mindful that this is out-breath. Continue this for several moments, focusing on your in and out-breaths. If your mind gets distracted, simply return your attention to the breath. Keep your concentration on every aspect of the in and out-breath, without any observations or judgments.
- Become aware of your body: After you have established an awareness of the breath, next you can move onto the awareness of the body. You can say something like “Breathing in, I’m aware of my body. Breathing out, I’m aware of my body.” This will bring your attention back to your body, making mind and body one. We often are not fully present in all situations during our day. Practicing and incorporating this technique into our daily lives can help us become more focused and not miss out on our lives.
- Release tension: As you are becoming aware of your breath and body, you may notice some tightening or tension in your body. It is possible to let this tension go by becoming aware of it and mindfully let go. Perhaps you have some unresolved stress you are holding in your body. Notice it, relax, and let it go.
- Walking meditation: Now with the mind focused on the breath and the body, and you have released any tension, go on a walk. Practice paying attention to your breath and the sensations you feel in your body as your feet move along the earth. Do not judge these sensations, simply experience them.
Being with friends and family members has some of the biggest effects on your mental health. Humans are not meant to live isolated. Interacting with other people stimulates our minds in the best way. This is because it not only has cognitive benefits, it also benefits our emotions. Studies have found that most active social people have slower memory decline than those that are isolated.
If your loved one is isolated, try exposing him or her to some new activities. This could be getting a volunteer job at a food bank or joining a club with like-minded individuals. Or they can visit their friends more often, participating in mutually interesting activities. If you don’t live with your loved one, try to visit them as often as you can, as well as calling them often on the phone. Another great way for them to socialize is to get them a pet. Having a constant companion around is sure to stimulate your loved one’s energy level. There is a bonus that he or she will meet other pet-owners when taking a dog out for a walk.
Human interaction enables people to practice their communication skills, think critically, memory recall, among many other cognitive abilities needed as we age. Since elderly people tend to withdraw as they get older, make an extra effort to keep them surrounded by friends and family they love.
Keep Brain Active for Higher Well-Being
Keeping your brain active is the surest way to extend your brain power through old age. And this type of health care will inevitably lead to a higher sense of well-being. So whether it is playing a game of rummy, enrolling them in a Spanish class, going on a nature walk, sitting mindfully together for 10 minutes, or gathering the whole family around them, you can contribute to the longer-lasting brain health of your loved one.