Mind Games – How To Improve Your Brain Health  

Even as a youngster, it’s worth taking steps to keep your brain “fighting fit” so you can continue to think, remember and reason well into your twilight years.

Do you ever tease your parents or grandparents about the crosswords, Sudokus or other puzzles they do religiously in the newspaper each day to stay current? Giggles aside, if they’re nearing retirement age, they’re actually on the right track towards maintaining their cognitive ability, with creative activities around the house – from furniture-assembly and carpentry to getting stuck in with garden design and flower-bed layout – helping to boost their spatial and reasoning skills.

Play a new game

And just because you’re in a younger, still striving generation, doesn’t mean you’re off the hook as regards your own brain health. Did you know that some games improve fundamental cognitive skills that can help you rise to the top in your studies or profession?

Popular in the self-improvement niche right now, a type of online entertainment called “brain training” has been found to boost both decision-making speed and memory – both of which can prove immensely helpful to you during examinations or in the boardroom. A couple that have earned positive reviews include Luminosity and Brain Metrix, but there are plenty more.

Our brain cell connections have been found, in numerous global research studies, to grow and develop in response to stimulation. And these online games seem to encourage neurogenesis or, in layman’s terms, significant changes in the cell density of brain areas that psychologists believe can make us “more agile thinkers, [offer] more creative insights and reason more logically”.

Similar benefits have been found to result from learning new skills, says associate professor of Neuropsychology, Elise Caccappolo, who is based at New York’s Columbia University Medical Centre. Choose something you love, from cooking a new type of cuisine to taking up the violin, playing bridge, signing up for an art course or starting a collection of valuable items. “The more intellectual stimulation you have,” she says, “the more various neural circuits are used. And the more circuits you have, the harder it is for the changes associated with neurodegenerative diseases to manifest.” Isn’t that some vibrant fuel for thought in the fight against dementia.

Break an intelligent sweat

Then, putting your smart device aside, regular exercise is the next weapon in your arsenal of keeping your brain healthy and youthful. The experts at Psychology Today advise that being physically active “increases your blood flow, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen and glucose your brain is receiving.” Whether you favor golf, tennis, aerobic dance, high-intensity interval training with or without weights, or even bowls (for the retirees) does not matter, because your brain will also get a workout as it manages your physical coordination throughout the many moves you make.

Delving deeper into your gray matter as you exercise reveals exciting news about the growth of new neurons, and the development of stronger connections between them. This is because physical activity promotes the production of three complex but essential growth factors that reduce inflammation, grow new blood vessels and halt the self-destruction of cells. Your regular exercise routine can also have a beneficial impact on memory, by awakening dormant stem cells in the hippocampus. There’s really nothing dumb-blonde about being a gym bunny!

Catch some restorative zzzs

Next on the list of ways to maintain – or even boost – your mental functioning is to get enough shuteye each night; at least seven hours is best. While this can be easier said than done with the stressful lifestyles we lead today, a few tips from neurologist and integrative medicine specialist Dr Romie Mushtaq include shutting down all digital devices in the hour before you hit the sack (as keeping them on in bed can be as destructive to sleep as a pre-bed coffee); making a list of worries or to-dos for the next day (so you don’t have to try and remember, or stress about them, overnight); and spending around 10 minutes in quiet contemplation (mindfulness meditation, if you will). This has been found to “calm your brain” and make it easier to “fall asleep and stay asleep”, she enthuses. If you don’t know where to start, take a look at a few of the amazing mindfulness apps on the market, from Headspace to Calm, Aura, Stop, Breathe & Think or Insight Timer – the latter of which has won TIME magazine’s Apps of the Year award in 2018.

Eat food for thought

According to the US Alzheimer’s Association, you can also love your brain by following a healthy and balanced diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, with limited red meat, weekly fish, poultry, beans and eggs, and small amounts of good-quality dairy. The Mediterranean diet – with its herbs and spices to boost flavor without need for salt; plenty of omegas from nuts, seeds, avos and fish to reduce inflammation in the body and decrease risk of heart and stroke; and a lifestyle in which meals revolve around socializing with friends and family, and moderate amounts of red wine are employed to fuel the festivities – has been recognized by the World Health Organization as a “healthy and sustainable dietary pattern” and by the United National, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as an “intangible cultural asset”. So get your tomato-based pizza and pasta in the oven!

Buddy up wisely

In conclusion, you really shouldn’t wait until your retirement years to give this powerful organ – the brain – its due consideration. If you prefer to learn new skills together with friends, that can be even better than doing so alone. This is because, when you’re taking a course together, the blood will circulate to new and different parts of your brain versus when you’re alone, as you listen to what your mates are saying and think up responses. Solid relationships, with a diverse group of people, can spur you out of a comfort zone and challenge you to compete in the sports and activities they each have on the go. It’s all about being open-minded; and an open mind is a youthful one, no matter your biological age.