After years of advice dished out by everyone from your own doctor to Dr. Oz, you can probably rattle off the do’s and don’ts for aging well as effortlessly as the experts: Eat a healthy diet. Get enough sleep. Control your blood pressure and cholesterol. Reduce stress. Stay socially active. Do 75-150 minutes of aerobic exercise plus two sessions of strength training every week.
Many of these recommendations will help your brain stay in shape along with your body, but your gray matter can benefit from a little extra assistance – especially if you’re 50 or older. In fact, according to more than two decades of medical research, actively exercising the brain on a long-term basis can not only improve cognitive performance but also reduce the risk of dementia as much as 60%.
In other words, the old adage “use it or lose it” applies to brainpower as well as brawn. That’s because regular mental stimulation helps build new brain neurons and synapses that offset some of the cognitive abilities we lose as we age. Some recent studies suggest that staying mentally active also has other physical effects, such as thickening of the frontal lobe and preservation of the blood supply to the brain, that contribute to mental acuity.
The upshot is that you can build your defenses against age-related memory loss and associated ailments by expanding your fitness regimen to include brain training. The catch is that you need a balanced brain workout – not just reading, playing bridge, doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles, or any other favorite single pastime – to reap the rewards.
Limiting yourself to just one brain-building activity will work some brain pathways and ignore others, just as only jogging or biking will get your heart pumping but do little to give you six-pack abs or help you advance to crane pose in your yoga practice. You need to cross-train the brain in a variety of areas – including short- as well as long-term memory, critical thinking, visuospatial orientation, calculation and language – to see results.
In a study published recently in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, for example, all participants who completed at least 40 20-minute sessions of a computer-based brain fitness program designed to address all of those cognitive domains showed measurable improvements over six months in all three areas examined: immediate memory, delayed memory and language . Many participants showed improvement after only two months.
With 10,000 Americans now turning 65 every day, that’s food for thought. And if you need more, consider this: a trim body and smooth skin won’t matter very much to your quality of life if your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders.
So before you sit down to watch “Scandal” the next time, spend a few minutes putting your brain through its workout paces. At the least, it can be entertaining. At best, it may help you stay vital, productive and near the top of your mental game when you reach what used to be called your golden years.
Dan Michel is CEO of Dakim , Inc., a clinically tested brain fitness platform that provides rigorous cognitive stimulation to help people sharpen and preserve brain function.