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6 simple ways to keep your brain healthy as you get older

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Yes, you can help boost your memory and stay mentally sharp as you age. Here are some fun ways to get started.

Getting older inevitably brings some changes to your body and mind. But you can do a lot to help feel your best at any age. And that includes keeping your memory sharp and your thinking clear. It’s worth the effort, too.

About 5.6 million Americans ages 65+ have Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.1 Dementia is when thinking issues get in the way of your everyday life. And it’s not considered a normal part of aging.2

There may be no magic pill, says Maria Dibner, MD. She’s a neurologist with Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum, in Worcester, Massachusetts. But there are plenty of activities that can help make a difference in your brain health.

Ready to get started? Let’s begin with some healthy-brain basics.

The building blocks for a healthy brain

One key to a healthy brain is to care for it just like a car, says Dr. Dibner. Keep it tuned up and firing on all cylinders. Mental activities are important, of course. But so are working out and keeping in touch with friends and family.

You need to do more than a crossword puzzle or a brain-training app, she says. Simply adding more fun activities to your day can make a big difference. You can help build a healthier brain with these three building blocks:

Move more. Research shows that exercise isn’t just good for your body. It’s good for your brain, too. When you exercise, your body releases chemical messengers (dopamine and serotonin), which can improve your mood. That may lead to lower stress and depression. It's also thought that exercise, especially combined with learning,  may add blood flow to the brain. That may help keep your memory and thinking skills from slowing down.3

Try to get 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week, says Dr. Dibner. Find something you like to do and keep on doing it. Anything that gets your heart rate up counts. Even a walk around the block helps.

Get together with people. Spending time with other people helps you stay social. And that’s good for your health. Feeling lonely has been linked to heart problems.4 Plus, being with people can help your memory and thinking skills.5

Why? When you’re hanging out with friends, your brain is working overtime. Studies show that staying active and social may improve how your brain works.5

Challenge your brain. Pick activities that you find a little hard. Try an extra big jigsaw puzzle or a hard word game. Read a type of book you haven’t tried before, such as science fiction or history.

Illustration of of a person's profile that highlights the brain area
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6 fun activities that can keep your brain sharp

Here are some fun brain-boosting activities you can try.

1. Play pickleball. Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America.6 It’s a cross between badminton, ping-pong and tennis. And it’s a great way to challenge your brain and body.

After all, you have to learn new rules and react fast to the game. Plus, pickleball is a good workout that’s not too hard on your body. Best of all, you play it with other people.

“Pickleball fits the bill for everything,” says Dr. Dibner. And it’s great for getting your heart pumping, she adds. Plus, you can play with old (or new) friends.

More ideas: Try other sports that combine connecting with people, exercise and thinking. Join a walking club, learn to play bocce, try tai chi or sign up for a bowling league.

2. Get into music. Listening to music is good for your body and your mind. A recent review of research found that it can lower your levels of anxiety and depression and even boost your immune system.7

More ideas: Join a choir or a community orchestra. Those are great social activities. You can make friends and get exercise while you learn new skills and have fun. Or take up dancing to combine music with movement.

3. Play a game. Try a game you’ve never played before. It might be mah-jongg, poker or bridge. All those games give your brain a workout as you learn new strategies and skills. Plus, you’ll enjoy being with others.

People who play more games in their 70s usually think better as they age. And people who play cards, chess and bingo do better on memory and thinking tests.8

More ideas: Don’t have anyone to play with? Find local groups that meet for an afternoon of cards. It really doesn’t matter what game it is. 

4. Read more. Reading a book may give your brain a boost. A 2021 study showed that older adults who regularly read saw less decline in thinking skills.9

Reading is also a good way to keep your mind active as you age, says the National Institute on Aging.10 It’s also fun.

More ideas: Mix up the type of books you read. If you’re always reading fiction, give nonfiction a try. Or do it the other way around. Reading can also be a way to learn more words. Jot down those words you don’t know and look them up. Learning new words is a great brain activity, says Dr. Dibner. And think about joining (or starting) a book club.

5. Learn a new language. There are lots of good reasons to learn a new language. It can help you think better, build confidence and make new friends. A small study suggested that older adults who studied Spanish on an app could think more clearly. They could also use their time better.11 Plus, learning a language is a wonderful way to learn about other cultures.

More ideas: Search online for free computer or phone apps. Or see if your library or community center has free or low-priced classes.

6. Change your habits. Sometimes, just doing simple things in a fresh way may give your mind a lift, says Dr. Dibner. It’s good for your brain to take a different way on your morning walk. Or brush your teeth with your other hand. “When you do something new and different, you use different parts of your brain,” says Dr. Dibner.

More ideas: Eat lunch every day at your desk? Try a picnic in the park instead. Always get your coffee at the same place? Try a new coffee shop. In a dinner rut? Try a new recipe this week.

Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Minorities and Women Are at Greater Risk for Alzheimer's Disease. Last reviewed August 20, 2019. Accessed April 13, 2023.
  2. National Institute on Aging. What Is Dementia? Symptoms, Types, and Diagnosis. Last reviewed December 8, 2022. Accessed April 13, 2023.
  3. American Psychological Association. Working out boosts brain health. Published March 4, 2020. Accessed February 23, 2023.
  4. American Heart Association. Social isolation, loneliness can damage heart and brain health, report says. Published August 22, 2022. Accessed March 8, 2023.
  5. National Institute on Aging. Cognitive Health and Older Adults. Last reviewed October 1, 2020. Accessed April 13, 2023.
  6. Sports and Fitness Industry Association. SFA’s topline shows physical activity increased for a fifth consecutive year. February 22, 2023. Accessed March 20, 2023.
  7. Brain Behavior and Immune Health. Music, mental health, and immunity. Published October 28, 2021. Accessed March 30, 2023.
  8. Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Playing analog games is associated with reduced declines in cognitive function: a 68-year longitudinal cohort study. Published November 18, 2019. Accessed March 15, 2023.
  9. International Psychogeriatrics. Reading activity prevents long-term decline in cognitive function in older people: evidence from a 14-year longitudinal study. Published January 2021. Accessed February 23, 2023.
  10. National Institute on Aging. Cognitive health and older adults. Accessed March 20, 2023.
  11. Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition. Improvement in executive function for older adults through smartphone apps: a randomized clinical trial comparing language learning and brain training. Published October 25, 2021. Accessed February 23, 2023.

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