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Working Out Your Brain

October 02, 2019

As a member of American Better Health Organization, it’s safe to assume you’re interested in healthy living, and maintaining an active lifestyle. You may read about all the latest fitness crazes, and stay up to date on nutrition studies. But how much attention do you pay to your brain health?

New research says challenging the mind earlier in life, may help keep it thinking clearly in old age. In a study released earlier this year by scientists from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, researchers analyzed people in their seventies and eighties without dementia. They found that those with more years of education, mentally challenging jobs, and greater amounts of cognitive activity (like reading, socializing and computer use) in middle and later life, started experiencing memory and thinking problems up to nine years later than those with less enriched lives.

Even reading fiction, often thought to not be as mentally enriching as academic reading, can improve brain function on a variety of levels. A recent study at Emory University found that reading novels enhances connectivity in the brain. The study focused on Emory University undergraduates, who were given a base-line MRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Students were shown to have heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with language, on the days following a reading assignment.

Another recent study found that being bilingual may actually slow brain aging. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh say bilingual people have a slower aging process- that could help them achieve longer and more satisfying lives. The overall findings of bilingual subjects pointed to a "better baseline cognitive functions" as they age.

So how can you “work out” your brain on a daily basis, in order to maintain your mental stability late into old age? We’ve got 10 brain-boosting activities that could help you stay sharp:

Brain Booster #1: Exercise your body

You might not think working out at the gym could help your brain health, but it does have positive effects on your brain function. Aerobic exercise is especially helpful, and the positive effects on the brain are numerous, ranging from the molecular to behavioral level. According to a study by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even a brief exercise of about 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions.

Brain Booster #2: Memorize a song

Recalling the words to a song can require intense focus and active memory. When you focus on remembering song lyrics, your brain releases chemicals like the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Those chemicals in tern enable plasticity and vivify memory.

Brain Booster #3: Learn to play an instrument

Keeping in line with the music trend, playing an instrument requires a lot of brain function. Things like listening, control of refined movements and translation of written notes (sight) to music (movement and sound) are improved with training.

Brain Booster #4: Toss around a ball

The simple act of practicing throwing a ball into the air and catching it can have a big impact on your brain power. Mastering sensory-guided movement activities can hone your brain’s visual and tactile abilities. MRI tests on people who engage in hand-eye coordination training, show a thickening of parts of the brain’s cortex.

Brain Booster #5: Practice using your peripheral vision

Recent studies show that drivers stay driving at an older age and have fewer accidents after actively training their peripheral vision. Actively stimulating peripheral vision has been proven to improve brain performance.

Brain Booster #6: Use your “weak” hand

Using the “other” hand than you normally do for everyday functions like brushing your hair or teeth can have a positive effect on your brain. Each time you force your body into an unfamiliar situation, the brain makes positive changes. Experts say using the other hand helps your brain to better integrate its two hemispheres.

Brain Booster #7: Finish a jigsaw puzzle

Jigsaw puzzles challenge your brain in ways word puzzles like crossword and Sudoku puzzles don’t. They help with dexterity, spatial reasoning, and logic. As mentioned above, activities that work both hemispheres of the brain are beneficial. Jigsaw puzzles challenge both sides of your brain simultaneously- The creative side projects the finished product, while the logical side fits the pieces.

Brain Booster #8: Walk on “bumpy” surfaces

Walking on uneven surfaces, such as cobblestones or even grass, improves the vestibular system of the inner ear. The vestibular system plays a central role in balance and equilibrium. Walking on bumpy surfaces challenges the vestibular system to improve its function, and can lead to better balance.

Brain Booster #9: Take a nature walk

While you’re walking on “bumpy” surfaces, take it a step further- go on a nature walk. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that memory and attention improved by 20 % when people took a walk through a park instead of a city street. Natural settings have a restful effect, allowing the brain to better process information, according to the study’s authors. City settings can be distracting with all the noise, jarring splashes of color and unexpected interruptions.

Brain Booster #10: Hang out with friends

Hanging out with friends decreases your chances of memory loss. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that women with large social networks cut their risk of dementia by as much as 26%. The Rush University Medical Center study mentioned in the beginning of this article included socializing as a highly cognitive activity, therefore reducing risk of memory loss and thinking problems.