There’s been a mountain of material written on how to keep our wits about us as we age. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rushed outside to do something really, really important then when I’m out the door, I don’t have a clue what it was.
Now, there’s help: Exercises for the brain, and they can actually be fun. Drive home via a different route; brush your teeth with your opposite hand (let me warn you, this is HARD!) I’ve even been attempting to eat with my left hand, and sometimes I stick it in my nose.
The brain works through associations (which is why it’s easier to memorize lyrics to a song than it is to try and remember the same words without music), so the more senses you involve the better.” I still sing the alphabet song when I’m looking up a name in the phone book.
Your morning newspaper is a great place to start. “Simple games like Sudoku and word games are good, as well as comic strips where you find things that are different from one picture to the next,” says John E. Morley, MD, director of St. Louis University’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and author of The Science of Staying Young. In addition to word games, Dr. Morley recommends the following exercises to sharpen your mental skills:
- Test your recall. Make a list — of grocery items, things to do, or anything else that comes to mind — and memorize it. An hour or so later, see how many items you can recall. Make items on the list as challenging as possible for the greatest mental stimulation.
- Draw a map from memory. After returning home from visiting a new place, try to draw a map of the area; repeat this exercise each time you visit a new location.
- Do math in your head. Figure out problems without the aid of pencil, paper, or computer; you can make this more difficult by walking at the same time. (I’m sorry, I’ll NEVER be able to do this one – I still count on my fingers.)
- Challenge your taste buds. When eating, try to identify individual ingredients in your meal, including subtle herbs and spices.
- Take a cooking class. Learn a new way to cook. Cooking uses a number of senses: smell, touch, sight, and taste, which all use different parts of the brain.
- Create word pictures. Visualize the spelling of a word in your head, then try and think of any other words that begin (or end) with the same two letters.
- Learn a foreign language. The listening and hearing involved stimulates the brain. (Does pig Latin count?)
- Let the music play. Learn to play a musical instrument or study music.
- Refine your hand-eye abilities. Learn a new skill that involves fine-motor skills, such as knitting, drawing, painting, assembling a puzzle, etc. (How bout drawing on eyeliner?)
- Engage your senses. Try activities that involve as many of your senses as possible, such as gardening.
- Learn a new sport. Take up an athletic exercise that utilizes the mind and body, like golf or basketball.
Soon people will realize that they can take steps to keep their brains healthy, just as they know they can prevent heart disease by taking certain actions, says Bender. “In the coming decade, I predict brain wellness to be right up there with heart health — now that there’s proof that living a brain-healthy lifestyle works!”