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Experts in brain health often tell us that maintaining mental sharpness is a matter of "use it or lose it." People over the age of 50 who have the fewest problems with memory, attention, and good judgment tend to be the people who are mentally active

Daily Practices for Brain Maintenance

Scientists claim that people who are the mental equivalent of couch potatoes tend to be more likely to experience Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Here are five simple daily practices for brain maintenance.
 

1. Do crossword puzzles

You don't have to go back to college to get your PhD in nuclear physics at the age of 95 to keep your brain active. Just doing a crossword puzzle can be enough. Doing a crossword puzzle requires using skills of word association, lexical memory search, list generation, and feeling the distinction between knowing and not knowing. Crossword puzzles keep the brain primed to recognize cues from words and from the ways words are printed, useful skills for nearly everyone.

2. Keep learning

Many people find that physical disabilities require mental agility. Simply learning new ways to continue to be able to do old tasks can keep the brain active. It can also help to learn a new skill or a new language or a new hobby—the emphasis being on "new"—to avoid age-related mental decline.

3. Exercise your body to exercise your brain

The exercises that benefit the brain the most are those that require a combination of movement, strategy, and memory. It's better to play tennis or to go rock climbing than it is to spend an hour on an elliptical trainer. It is especially helpful to learn yoga or tai chi, since the ability to stretch and move the body in different directions can be very useful in preventing falls that can lead to debilitating injury.

If you just aren't into sports or complicated exercise, you can at least increase circulation to your brain or practice essential motor skills. Here are some examples:

  • Sit down on a clean, non-slip floor. Lift your right leg to your chest while raising your left hand over your head. Complete 10 repetitions of the exercise, and repeat with your other leg and your other hand.
  • With a sturdy chair or table nearby should you need help maintaining balance, stand on one foot with your eyes closed for 10 seconds. Then return your foot to the floor and stand on the your other foot with your eyes closed for another 10 seconds. This exercise helps your brain develop skills of proprioception, judging your position in space, and also helps you keep up your sense of joint strength and muscle tone.
  • If nothing else, take a brisk walk for 10 to 20 minutes every day.

4. Meditate daily

It is not necessary to learn an intricate system of Buddhist or Hindu meditation to derive benefits for your brain. Simply declaring a "time out" for stress gives your brain time to process stress hormones and to repair oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Many people find that the most important part of their breathing practice is breathe in deeply and to take long exhalations, slowing down the heart and calming the brain.

5. Stay connected

Social interaction not only requires brain activity, it also helps you establish yourself in a network of friends and acquaintances who may give you help you need when you encounter difficult circumstances. This is especially important for people who care for a spouse who has dementia at home—the isolation of taking care of someone who has dementia is itself a risk factor for dementia.

There are also changes in nutrition that can help keep your brain young.
 
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Luchsinger JA, Small S, Biessels GJ. Should we target insulin resistance to prevent dementia due to Alzheimer disease? Arch Neurol. 2011 Jan, 68(1):17-8.
  • Nickerson RS. Five down, Absquatulated: Crossword puzzle clues to how the mind works. Psychon Bull Rev. 2011 Apr, 18(2):217-41.
  • Photo courtesy of Selva on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/selva/
  • Photo courtesy of theretrogigolo on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/theretrogigolo/283196324