By: Amanda Aaron,
Director of Life Enrichment and Resident Advocate, Hebrew Health Care, Inc.
You have probably heard that it is important to engage in new types of cognitive exercises to stay mentally alert as we age. Activities which provide a mental challenge assist in strengthening, maintaining, and developing new neural pathways in the brain. The more frequently you challenge yourself the more pathways are built. The more complex the problems you face, the more dynamic the training process becomes, but if crossword puzzles and Sudoku leave you wanting more, don’t think that you are out of options.
As children the brain is a beehive of learning and construction. During the early childhood years we form basic pathways which become our own super highways for information processing and problem solving. If these basic routes are “super highways” then the developmental process provides us with exits, routes, and back roads. We have all sat through traffic, dealt with the frustration of road closings and repairs, as well as accidents. At those times we are grateful for whatever available alternatives we have to reach our destination. We owe it to ourselves to maximize our own potential as well. There may be a time when the same issues hampering a successful commute can apply to your brain function.
How do we maintain our brain?
Think small: If an activity seems too time consuming, you are less likely to make the time for it in your schedule. Training your brain does not mean that you need to face equations of quantum physics or solve the issue of world hunger. If you read the paper, try the word jumble. When grocery shopping try and keep a running total of your purchases without paper and compare it to your receipt. Pick a word of the day and try to use it at least three times in conversation.
Break some habits: Activities that can be done by memory contribute very little to our overall cognitive health. To train your brain try to alter the way you do a reflexive action. Changing habits may be frustrating; however, it is very effective. It forces you to rethink and process; movement, body posture, orientation, and THINK about activities you take for granted. Feeling stumped?
Try to use your non-dominant hand to write your grocery list. Because you have to focus on the construction of each letter, you end up spelling each word mentally three or four times, you have to find a way of holding the paper, pen, and following the flow of your writing differently than you do daily.
Turn off the GPS. When not responsible for judging distance and processing the next step in a series the brain does not retain the same information. Try a new route, give someone direction using only landmarks, make your return trip different from your approach route, or even switch the gas station you always use. New problems require new solutions.
Don’t go it alone: Almost everything is made better when done with friends. Socializing is also a great way to boost your brain power as you never know where a conversation will lead. Do you enjoy current events or politics? Try debating a hot topic with a friend. Do you enjoy a bit of gambling? Join a card club or head to a bingo hall. Love dining? Try a new restaurant. You could ask the waiter for a recommendation and then try and determine what is in the dish. You could also find and make a recipe for something you enjoy but have never made before. If two or more of you make the same item using different recipes it could make for a lovely get together.
Pursue your interests: As life has unfolded you may have had to put interests on the back-burner in favor of raising a family, time for work, or other obligations. It is time to turn that burner on! If you are truly interested in something you are willing to put in the extra effort needed to make it happen. Nature lover? Try hiking a new trail, starting a garden from seed, or move your reading beach-side. Crafty? Knit an item using a pattern, up-cycle an item you would typically have thrown away, or complete a craft without any instructions. Sports fan? When watching a game don’t use positions in conversation with others, join a fantasy league, or try to make a table version of the game at home.
Education doesn’t stay in the classroom: Never stop learning. You have the opportunity to learn something new everyday. Try something simple – Google it. When the answer to a question is “I’m not sure.” Look it up online, take a class, or watch an instructional video on YouTube.
Laugh, laugh, and laugh some more: Laughter heals. There are many studies which will tell you the specific measurable benefits of humor, but toss that aside for the moment. Laughter heals. It contributes to a better outlook, it improves mental health, it contributes to honest grieving, and it makes the hours seem shorter. Humor is a pleasant way to pass the time and as we have already discussed if you enjoy what you are doing you will do more of it. Whether you read the “Humor in Uniform” in Readers Digest, go to a stand-up show or look back through photo albums and reflect on all of the wonderful hairstyles you didn’t have… laugh often.
Have fun! Train your brain! Regardless of which, if any of these, suggestions you take make sure you take the time to LIVE the live you are living. Have a great day!