8 powerful ways to boost brainpower as we age

What have you done to exercise your brain today?

 Everyone knows it’s important to stay physically fit and active as we age, but staying mentally sharp might be most important of all. And it turns out many people are keenly aware of this, yet they don’t know what to do to fully boost their brainpower. 

 A recent AARP study found that 92 percent of senior respondents acknowledge it is very important to maintain brain health. Yet when asked the best way to do it, they were off the mark: 18 percent cited socializing, 44 percent said physical exercise and 50 percent chose intellectual pursuits. Though they hit on some key points, the best answer is all of the above and more.

 A holistic approach to good health is the key to maintaining a sharp mind, says Libby Christianson, director of community programs at Lake Forest Place, a Presbyterian Homes retirement community on the North Shore that promotes healthy, active lifestyles with its Choices program.

 “Brain health is a whole body, whole life experience,” Christianson says. “We look at all dimensions of wellness with our Choices program when developing programs and activities. Exercise, nutrition and socialization are all important to maintaining healthy brains, and more importantly quality of life, as some of us are living longer then we imagined we would.”

 The good news is that boosting brain power can be easy and fun. Here are eight great ways to help your brain stay sharp.

  1. Be active. Studies show that even light exercise like walking or stretching can improve memory and alertness. “Exercise is number one in improving brain health,” Christianson says. “Even 15 minutes of exercise a day has been proven to promote brain health.” Lake Forest Place has a state-of-the-art fitness center that offers swim classes and tai chi, along with dance, yoga, aerobics and walking groups — all excellent ways to enhance holistic health.
  1. Eat right. Healthy fuel is essential for a healthy brain. Research shows that certain elements in food — especially omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E — can positively impact brain health, according to the AARP. Christianson recommends a Mediterranean or MIND diet, both rich with greens, vegetables, fish, poultry and olive oil. “It’s second on the list of ways to improve brain health,” she says. “Our dietitians and chefs work to create healthy food choices that appeal to residents.” 
  1. Keep learning. Learning new things helps the mind stay active and strong, and it actually builds new neurological connections in the brain, research shows. To that end, Lake Forest College has partnered with Presbyterian Homes to hold special continuing education classes on-site, and residents get to choose the topics. “We also have a computer tutor who works one-on-one with residents,” Christianson says. “Our residents are learning lots of new things.” 
  1. Play games. Solving puzzles and brainteasers markedly improves cognitive ability, navigation skills, people skills, memory and more, according to AARP studies. Crosswords are good, but challenging brain games designed to support enhanced mental agility are better. A number of websites offer them, including AARP and Lumosity. And don’t be afraid to try your hand at video games; younger family members almost certainly have a few on their mobile devices that they’d love to play with you.
  1. Socialize: Research shows that staying socially connected with a network of friends helps support a healthy brain. That’s why living in a life plan retirement community like Presbyterian Homes is a popular choice among older adults. Residents can participate in many different organized activities such as gardening and group trips to baseball games and concerts. The community also offers mentally stimulating activities such as improv classes and lectures. These offerings make it easier for older adults to socialize and, ultimately, to stay mentally healthy. 
  1. Manage stress: Several studies indicate that keeping stress levels low and getting a good night’s sleep are essential for maintaining healthy brain function. According to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, stress raises levels of cortisol, a chemical that, in excess, can damage cells in the memory center of your brain and reduce your ability to retain new information. Meditation, prayer and exercise can work wonders keeping stress under control.
  1. Express yourself creatively: Take an art, music or dance class or find ways to stretch your creative muscles. Creative pursuits can have some exciting benefits for older adults, including improved memory, motor skills, self-esteem, relaxation and strengthening of neural pathways that may help prevent dementia. For more information on the benefits, see this accompanying article: “The joyful benefits of creative expression for older adults.”
  1. Listen to music: Losing yourself in a favorite song or exploring new music is one of the best ways to exercise your brain, according to a study at Johns Hopkins University. Your brain has to do a lot of computing to understand the flow and structure of music, researchers found. Music improves memory and alertness, as well as lowers blood pressure.

 In fact, that’s the idea behind a new program at Presbyterian Homes that aims to entertain as well as stimulate mental activity.

 “We are partnering with Lake Forest Symphony and North Shore University Health Systems on a pilot program called Musical Memories,” Christianson says.  “The program brings a string quartet from the symphony to Independent Living, Memory Care and Assisted Living residents for interactive listening that promotes brain health.”

 Taking steps to actively maintain quality of life is vital. The best thing you can do for yourself is to build a strong body and a sharp mind and then actively work to keep them that way.

—Bob Young for Presbyterian Homes