As we grow older, we often joke about having “senior moments.” But underneath the humor is real fear about brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia—terms that are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. According to WebMD, dementia is the name for a group of brain disorders that make it hard to remember, think clearly, make decisions or even control your emotions. Alzheimer’s disease is one of those disorders, but there are many different types and causes of dementia.
So what can you do to maintain your brain? An observational study published this year by JAMA Psychiatry found that engaging in intellectually demanding and stimulating activities may lower the odds of dementia. (Sorry, watching TV and shopping don’t count.) Scientists think that consistent mental stimulation may protect the brain by establishing “cognitive reserve.” This may help the brain become more responsive and adaptable in some mental functions so it can compensate for age-related brain changes and health conditions that affect cognition. To start, keep your mind active. Reading, taking classes, traveling, learning new skills or volunteering are all ways to keep your brain engaged and your emotional health strong.
Formal cognitive training also seems to benefit the brain, according to the National Institute on Aging. A few years ago, the organization conducted reputable research titled the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial, in which healthy adults 65 and older participated in 10 sessions of memory training, reasoning training or processing-speed training. The sessions improved participants’ mental skills in the area in which they were trained, and most of these improvements persisted for years after the training was completed.
In addition to formal cognitive training, commercial brain health programs such as Lumosity or Nintendo’s Brain Age have become big business in recent years. These computer programs are created by game designers and scientists, and they provide “mental workouts,” which they claim improve cognition through puzzles, memory quizzes and concentration skill drills. It is difficult to assess the comparative benefit of these programs because the majority of research available is sponsored by the companies that market them. Still, if you find them enjoyable, they are another way to keep your mind busy, and they may provide some short-term improvement in some kinds of mental performance.
Ultimately, you don’t need to invest in special games or brain-training programs to boost your brain power—just do something mentally challenging that you enjoy, preferably with people you enjoy. Also, remember that physical health and brain health are intertwined, so make sure to get plenty of exercise, control your blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, and follow a healthy diet. Staying mentally and physically active may not prevent brain disease altogether, but the combination will certainly enhance your mental health and overall quality of life.
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