There are simple things you can do now to help you stay sharp later in life -- several small changes you can make to your daily routine that could have result in a big way in getting and keeping your brain in tip-top shape.
On "The Early Show Saturday Edition," Dr. Cynthia Green, Ph.D., spelled them out.
Green and the editors of Prevention magazine wrote, "Brainpower Game Plan: Sharpen Your Memory, Improve Your Concentration, and Age-Proof Your Mind in Just 4 Weeks."
Move It: Get off the Couch and Get in Gear!
Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise four-to-five times a week. Go for a walk or run, swim - anything to get yourself moving. Try some complex activities that really make you think, such as ballroom dancing or juggling, for some added benefit.
Seek New Challenges (Make Sure You're Always Thinking)
Look for some simple ways to push you out of your intellectual routine every day. Try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, taking a new route to work, or even doing a crossword puzzle. Add new, more complex activities on a regular basis to constantly get your brain to "think" differently. Challenge your comfort zone by learning to play a new instrument, taking up knitting, taking a class or studying a new language.
Beat the Clock (Get Your Head in the Game)
Spend 10 to 20 minutes every day giving your everyday intellectual skills a good workout. How? Any game that requires you to play against the clock will do it. Play board games like Boggle or Set. Check out handheld electronic Games like Simon or games for the Nintendo DS. Look at computer-based games, such as those on free game sites or brain fitness software products.
Get a Social Life (Be Social)
Connect with others in a meaningful way each and every day. Volunteer, go out for dinner with friends or join a reading group.
Move It: Get off the Couch and Get in Gear!
Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 4-5 times a week.
Studies show that one of the best things we can do for our brains is to get regular aerobic exercise. Exercise improves our everyday intellectual performance, reduces our long-term risk for dementia, supports neuroplasticity (our brain's ability to grow new neurons and new connections between brain cells) and lowers our risk for other diseases that can lead to memory loss, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, depression, etc.
How much exercise do we need? Studies suggest that getting just 30 minutes of exercise 4-5 days a week is enough. There is actually no evidence that getting more boosts your brain power over and above the benefits we see at that level. Researchers in Seattle found that folks who reported getting exercise at least three times a week (walking, jogging, swimming) were 38% less likely to develop a memory impairment than others in their study who did not get the same amount of activity.
What kind of exercise are we talking about? The great news is that the studies found that even just walking briskly (fast enough that it is hard to carry on a conversation) does the trick. Clearly, getting more aerobic activity is great for other aspects of health, like our heart health, but when it comes to brain health, even something as "easy" as walking can really make a difference!
An additional tip: Recent studies have shown that exercises that involve coordination, such as video dance games (Dance Dance Revolution) or juggling improve everyday memory and even impact the volume of our brain's white matter. Try these kinds of fun exercises into your routine.
Get Intellectually Engaged
Challenge your comfort zone by learning to play a new instrument, taking up knitting, take a class or studying a new language
Staying mentally active is a key to boosting our brain health. "Stretching" our brain, if you will, gives us the opportunity to build new connections between brain cells, and may even promote the growth of new neurons. Research suggests that folks who report high levels of intellectual engagement are two and a half times less likely to develop a memory impairment than those of us who are "mental couch potatoes."
What kind of activities are we talking about? The great news is there is a whole range of ways we can "stretch" our brains. Some are really easy, and we can slip them in throughout our day - those include things like: Brushing our teeth with our non-dominant hand, reading a newspaper article backwards, rearrange your desk, take a different route to work (there are exercises like this for every day of the Brainpower Game Plan). Then there are ways we can keep our brains engaged through new, novel activities that require more time, such as learning a new language, taking up knitting, or joining an art class.
Staying intellectually engaged is especially important for those of us who may no longer be in an environment, such as the workplace, where we once got that kind of "workout" on a regular basis. Retirement or down time between jobs is no time to put your brain in idle - take a class, try something creative you've never had time for before - use the time to keep your brain at work!
Play against the Clock
Spend 10 to 20 minutes every day giving your everyday intellectual skills a good workout. Play any game that requires you to play against the clock such as Boggle, Chess or Set.
As we grow older, or if we have a length of time when we are not working or meaningfully engaged, we lose ground in specific intellectual skills that help us maintain our "edge" day-to-day. Those skills - attention, intellectual speed, flexibility (our ability to multitask) and short term memory - can get a real boost from exercises that address them directly. A recent federally funded, multicenter study, called the ACTIVE trial, found that folks who participated in training across some of these skills significantly improved in their performance on intellectual tests that measured their ability in the areas in which they were trained, such as attention and memory.
One of the best ways we can give these everyday intellectual skills a great workout is to play games against the clock. Timed games force us to pay attention, think fast, and be nimble - what a great brain workout! At least 10-20 minutes a day is great, but even a few days a week is probably more than you do now.
Some of my top picks for games we play against the clock are Boggle, Set, Simon, Nintendo Gameboy, computer games (free ones, on sites such as MiniClip.com), dedicated brain fitness software, which acts like a "personal trainer" for your skills workout
Volunteer, go out for dinner with friends, join a reading group.
Social connections really matter to our brain health. When we are in a social setting, we are practicing all those everyday intellectual skills (attention, speed, flexibility and short term memory are all key to holding up your end of a conversation). We also may be reducing our risk for a serious memory impairment. Several studies, including one last year from the Harvard School of Public Health, have shown that folks who report more social activity have an associated reduced risk for dementia.
How much should you socialize? There is no clear guidance from the research, but you should look to interact with others in a meaningful way every day.
What kind of socializing matters? All kinds of socializing are great for your brain health, be it a phone call with a friend, to volunteering in your local community or school, to just going out for dinner with the gang.