“Your brain is changing,” writes health journalist Sondra Kornblatt in her book, A Better Brain at Any Age: The Holistic Way to Improve Your Memory, Reduce Stress, and Sharpen Your Wits. “It’s changing every day, even as you read this sentence.” She goes on to quote a book by cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky Ph.D.: “The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.”
That explains those “senior moments.” (Constantly misplace your gadgets? Never seem to recall the names of old acquaintances you randomly bump into at the supermarket?) It’s true that the brain loses sharpness over time --moreso if you're a mom. Scientifically speaking, "senior moments" or "mommy brain" happens when communication between neurons (brain cells), which transmit functions to the rest of the body, slows down as we age. Then there are a slew of other factors, such as illness, medication, and lifestyle habits (smoking and alcohol consumption) that speed up the natural process of neuron depletion. But here’s a bit of information to help you sleep better at night: it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to senility.
The good news is the brain can withstand atrophy. “Until the 1900s, scientists thought your brain stopped generating new neurons as an adult. If a brain cell gave its life, these scientists said, there were no replacement parts. Now we know that at age seventy-five, you still have the neuron connections you did at twenty-five,” says Kornblatt. “Your brain continues to grow neurons (in a process called neurogenesis), 500 to 1,000 each day.”
The trick is to put these cells to good use so that they don’t waste away.
Exercise will keep the brain strong and guard it against the natural decline of brain functions, as it would with, say, your heart or your lungs. The best part is, brain exercises are often practical, fun, and cheap. In fact, you’re performing one right this second!
Possibly the oldest and most common hobby in the world, reading can stall the decline in memory, says research published in the journal Neurology in 2013. Plus points if you’re flipping through an actual paperback! A University of Texas study suggests that reading through a digital screen, what with its multi-tasking features, slows you down by 20 to 30 percent.
Time to keep stretching those mental muscles. Read on for more stimulating brain exercises:
Word and number games In between hour-long road trips, you will most likely find yourself with loads of time to kill. Before you whip out that smartphone and start mindlessly scrolling through social media posts, try these mind benders, culled from Kornblatt’s years of research.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
NUMBER YOUR NAME - Add up the numbers corresponding to the alphabetic position of each letter in your name. Keep adding until you arrive at a single digit. For example: Natalie would be 14 + 1 + 20 + 1 + 12+ 9 + 5 = 62; and 6 + 2 = 8.
TRAILERS - You can play this with friends or family just about anywhere. The group picks a category (like local actors or movies). One player starts the game by naming an item in the category. The next player names another item that starts with the last letter of the previous item. Movies could be: Titanic, Cars, Star Wars, Serendipity, You’re My Boss.
WORDS FROM PLATE NUMBERS - Fight boredom in traffic or during a long drive by coming up with words -- or phrases -- from the letters on the plate numbers of vehicles around you. For instance, UVR 963 can be universe or Unforgettable Vacation is Real. You can play this alone or with a group.
Change your routine When you get used to doing something one way, the subconscious takes control of that particular activity -- and that requires very little effort from the brain. You can recharge it with brand new energy by switching things up.
In The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, Pierce J. Howard Ph.D. presents a list of simple ways you can do this. Compiled from the bestselling book Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness by Lawrence C. Katz, Duke University neurobiologist, and co-author Manning Rubin, these changes are “designed to form new associations among previously unassociated parts of the brain.”
Some exercises to try: Use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth. Take new routes to work and other frequent destinations. Acquire a new hobby, like playing a musical instrument or painting.
Physical movement Research has shown that full-body exercise benefits the brain as well by promoting increased absorption of oxygen and production of neurotrophins (proteins that support neuron development).
Dancing, in particular, can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 76 percent, according to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Don’t worry, though, if you can’t find the time to hit the gym or studio regularly. In A Better Brain at Any Age, Kornblatt presents quick movements you can do a few minutes each day or during breaks, to “open the brain” for more activity: When walking, swing your right arm as you step your left foot forward, and vice versa. As if you were marching, alternate touching one hand to the opposite knee. Squeeze your arms, legs, and head, or lightly scratch the skin.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
Smart(er) phone Though experts generally recommend going manual to maximize the benefits of brain games, your smartphone or tablet can still be valuable source of healthy pastimes.
Lumosity.com - Sign up for a free, limited account and test your brain with three games a day measuring mental speed, flexibility, memory, attention span, and problem solving skills. Or go premium for a customized, daily program and game list. It has a free mobile app available for both Apple and Android, too.
NeuroNation.com - You can sign up for a free account or download the app to access expert-developed and recommended brain games based on your goals and preferred frequency. Free on Apple and Android.
A Clockwork Brain - Try to beat the clock as you solve mini-games and puzzles that each challenge a different set of cognitive abilities. Free on Apple and Android.
Eidetic - Named after a person who can recall mental images with unusual vividness, this app will boost your memory through a technique called spaced repetition. Free on Apple.
This story originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Good Housekeeping Philippines magazine. Minor edits have been made by the Smartparenting.com.ph editors.