Staying Mentally Sharp

How to Keep Your Mind Sharp

A healthy brain is vital to the pursuit of a fulfilling life. Nevertheless, aging can negatively impact cognitive functioning. Fortunately, there is strong evidence that a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of cognitive impairments. So, what kinds of mental wellness practices can we adopt that will help us later in life? Here are our 10 suggested activities to promote brain health, keeping your mind healthy and sharp as you enjoy your retirement years.

10 Tips for Staying Mentally Sharp as You Age

1. Exercise

A good workout stimulates the development of new brain cells, increases the connections between cells, lowers blood pressure, helps keep blood sugars balanced, improves cholesterol levels and reduces stress. Exercise also stimulates chemical changes in the brain that enhance thinking, learning and mood.

Exercise doesn’t have to be mundane and boring. Here are some fun things you can do to stay fit that will also get your heart pumping:

  • Dancing (it also improves gait and balance)
  • Walking with a friend
  • Playing golf
  • Swimming or water aerobics
  • Gardening
  • Window shopping

2. Read and learn

Brain training activities have been shown to stimulate new neural connections in the brain while also helping to increase the generation of new brain cells. Both of these functions are important to brain health because they increase brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to modify its connections or rewire itself).

Just as your skin sloughs off skin cells and constantly renews itself, your brain does the same. The key to retaining these newly developed brain cells, however, is to integrate them into the brain by giving them a job to do. Cognitive stimulation (brain training) does just that.

The Rush Institute’s Memory and Aging Project reported that individuals who participate in mentally challenging activities have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and a reduced decline in global cognition. Any mentally stimulating activity will help your brain; the key is to keep the activity challenging. Once an activity becomes easy, it’s time to find something else to give your brain a workout.

Examples of things you can do to give your brain a workout include:

  • Taking a course to learn something new
  • Doing puzzles and word games
  • Spending time drawing, coloring and painting
  • Learning to play a musical instrument
  • Increasing your vocabulary
  • Taking up a new hobby that involves fine-motor skills

3. Eat nutritious food

Certain foods can boost brain health and memory. These foods include fatty fish, coffee, blueberries, turmeric, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and nuts. Many of these contain omega-3 fatty acids, which the body uses to build brain and nerve cells. These fats are also critical to memory and may slow age-related mental decline.

Simply put, adherence to a balanced diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fats/oils and low-fat proteins (especially fish) is associated with slower cognitive decline and a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Even making dietary improvements later in life can be beneficial to the brain.

4. Manage stress

Stress can cause a rise in cortisol, which is a hormone that can damage the brain over time. This hormone leads to memory problems not related to dementia or age-related memory loss.

To mitigate stress, take time for yourself. Something as simple as going for a quick walk or enjoying your favorite book can be an easy way to reset. According to The American Institute of Stress, knitting or sewing are also great hobbies that help reduce stress.

5. Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is essential to keeping the aging brain sharp. As you sleep, your brain forms and stores new memories. Poor sleep interferes with the development of nerve cells, causing problems with memory, concentration and decision-making. Sleep can also help flush stress hormones from the body, thereby improving mental sharpness in older adults.

Be aware that certain medications, including sleeping pills, can affect memory and brain function. Other medications that can affect memory and brain function include antihistamines, blood pressure and arthritis drugs, muscle relaxants, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, medications for urinary incontinence and gastrointestinal discomfort, and painkillers.

6. Quit smoking

Avoid tobacco in any form. There is strong evidence linking smoking to dementia. Even second-hand smoke exposes the brain to toxic conditions that can cause problems. In fact, the WHO now estimates that smoking may be responsible for as much as 14% of Alzheimer’s cases.

7. Stay social

Robert Wilson with The Rush Institute in Chicago published a report that said loneliness doubles a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. He further stated that socialization is associated with a lowered risk of cognitive decline, loneliness and depression. According to Science Daily, social isolation and loneliness are a bigger threat to your health than obesity.

In short, social isolation can have a devastating impact on the lives of older adults. Therefore, it is critical to meet friends for coffee or attend social events. Making a deep and lasting connection with another person will benefit you both.

8. Improve your numbers

It’s important to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels in check for your brain health. High blood pressure in midlife can lead to an increased risk of cognitive decline later in life. Keep your blood pressure as low as possible by:

Keeping your cholesterol levels balanced is equally important. High levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) have been associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. You can improve your cholesterol levels by:

Since diabetes increases your risk of developing dementia as well, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is critical. Exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet are essential to preventing diabetes.

9. Use all your senses

Sights, sounds and smells can all evoke strong memories. In fact, the link between memory and sense of smell is especially strong — perhaps stronger than the link between memory and your other senses. The aroma of a home-cooked meal can evoke thoughts of holiday dinners, for example.

You’d be surprised how many activities involve your senses. Go outside and blow bubbles on a beautiful day, brew a new type of tea or take time for yourself and paint a picture. All of these activities can stimulate your senses and help keep your memory sharp.

10. Live in a stimulating environment

According to a study by Colorado State University, a stimulating living environment may mitigate the development of dementia in older adults. A senior living community can help by keeping residents active and engaged. Things to consider when looking for a senior living community include:

  • Communities with amenities and services that support mental sharpness and invite residents to use their senses
  • Residences that offer a variety of programs and places to learn, like libraries
  • Communities that offer on-site gym therapy to help people stay mentally sharp through physical activity
  • Gathering places, such as pubs, parlors, fireplaces and porches to provide opportunities to socialize

In Summary

As we age, it’s common for our brains to not work quite as efficiently as they used to. To stay on top of its game, your brain needs cognitive exercise just like your body needs physical exercise. As your brain works to learn new things, it must forge new neural connections. As you continue in your “brain training,” you help your brain maintain those neural connections. Many scientists believe this ability diminishes with age; therefore, you need to perform activities on a regular basis to keep your brain healthy and strong.