The aging brain, dementia and Alzheimer’s are buzz topics in the health space. How can we prevent cognitive decline? is the question of the hour. More and more doctors and researchers are combining their brainpower to come up with ways to power our brains longer.
If you’re looking for everyday ways to ward off conditions like dementia, there’s never been a better time to start strengthening your cognition with easy tricks—whether you’re in your 20s or your 80s, says Douglas Scharre, MD, director of the division of cognitive neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Finally, researchers are gathering major clues about how and why Alzheimer’s develops. “One of the problems we face with brain disease, including degenerative dementia conditions like Alzheimer’ disease, is the disconnection of certain brain areas,” Scharre explains. “Because of localized or focal damage or brain dysfunction, one part to the brain that still works well, may be not be able to communicate effectively to another part that is also working well since the damaged part has disconnected the two areas.”
Although the damaged region can be tiny, it can derail major neural pathways and prevent a healthy, fully-functioning brain. “If we can find alternative ways to bypass the areas working less well, the cognitive and functional deficits would be substantially less.”
This is why you’ve got to flex your brain muscle early, often, regularly and continuously. “Use it,” says Scharre. “Physical and mental exercise appear to be useful in preserving brain function. [Researchers think] perhaps using your brain helps to build alternative pathways to bypass damaged regions.”
When it comes to the brain, the more you use it, the less you lose it. Here are some easy, expert strategies for staying mentally healthy everyday.
For Memory: Repeat and Associate
Have you ever heard that, in order to remember a name, you should repeat it three times after you meet someone? Repetition really does help you store and retain memories, says Scharre, so say it over and over—before associating it with something related, to help a memory root itself in place. “Associate whatever you are trying to remember with some other clue that may help with retrieval,” he explains. “I can remember Jennifer since that is the name of my niece, for example. Or I can remember 314 Market Street, because 3.14 is Pi and I love to buy pie at the market.” The more complex the clues, the harder it is to use them successfully, so keep it as simple as possible.
For Focus: Strategize and Habitualize
For better focus, you need to focus on focusing, says Scharre. (Yes, really!) Think about tactics that will lead to better concentration, and actively tune in. Make eye contact when you’re talking to your co-worker. Shut off your phone when you’re working on a big project on deadline. Turn off music and television when you have to read that deposition. Scharre even suggests a quick shot of caffeine if you need to power through that afternoon meeting. Any excuse for coffee, right?
For Executive Functioning: Connect and Puzzle Out
Executive function is generally considered higher level thinking, which encompasses problem-solving, reasoning and planning. To strengthen this mental skill set, focus on puzzles. Scharre says you can do things like sudoku and The New York Times crosswords, but also work on making sound judgements and seeking connections between ideas. Walk through your own decision-making, or dive into a field of study that builds on old research. “Assess differences and similarities between ideas, compare and contrast, relate thoughts to other ideas or constructs,” he explains. “You can think of how things are connected in different ways.” Maybe it’s a Venn Diagram of three different project routes at work, or how Plato’s methods differed from Socrates’. The more you choose to puzzle out, the more you strengthen your brain.
For Overall Brain Health: Movement and Exercise
All physical exercise helps the brain, says Scharre. “The brain controls all voluntary muscle movements,” he says. “It requires connections between motor control centers, and visual, auditory, feeling, and other sensory input modalities, as well as connections to our monitoring centers for pain, time, exhaustion, respiratory centers and more.” So, get up and get moving everyday. Whether it’s training for a marathon, swimming, martial arts, yoga, a meandering walk around the park or 10,000 steps a day. The more you do, the more you’re protected from cognitive degeneration. Up, up!
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.