1. Regular exercise
Exercise transforms the brain by stimulating the release of growth factors — chemicals in the brain that influence the health, abundance and survival of new brain cells and the growth of new blood vessels. Exercise can also help improve our mood, sleep patterns and stress level, all of which contribute to cognitive impairment.
For years, experts have been aware that exercise causes a spike in a unique group of chemicals called endorphins, although little has been said about the benefits of exercise on the hippocampus, a small organ located within the brain’s medial temporal lobe.
The hippocampus, a brain area critical for learning and memory, is thought to shrink by as much as 15% in late adulthood, making it a primary target of studies in Alzheimer’s disease. However, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is tackling the issue of shrinkage, and highlighting the positive effects exercise can have on hippocampal volume.
Researchers discovered that aerobic exercise increases the size of the anterior hippocampus, leading to improvements in spatial memory. Not only that, they found exercise increased hippocampal volume by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1-2 years.
You’ve heard that meditation is great for reducing stress and improving concentration, but it’s even more impressive to see what it can do for our brains as we age.
Multiple studies show that regular meditation can significantly improve attention, memory, verbal fluency and help prevent cognitive decline. During meditation, practitioners experience a period of deep relaxation, called the relaxation response. That relaxation response is thought to reduce stress hormones, change brain waves and release all kinds of healthy benefits throughout your mind and body. Researchers note that when we meditate for as little as 20 minutes a day, there are multiple physiologic changes that benefit our health from head-to-toe. In fact, The National Centers for Complimentary and Integrative Health says that regular meditation can physically change the brain and improve a host of health problems.
3. Spend time with your grandkids
Grandparents who spend quality time with their grandkids stand to gain a wide range of health benefits, including improved cognitive function. An Australian study found that grandmothers who spent one day per week caring for their grandkids displayed the highest cognitive performance of participants studied.
4. Read for 30 minutes each day
Involved reading — the kind invoked by books — improves cognition, which can help protect against age-related illnesses.
5. Keep your brain busy with free crossword puzzles
There’s a lot of information out there about crossword puzzles, and their ability to stimulate the brain. Is it all true? According to research published in the Archives of Neurology, it is. If you’ve been doing crossword puzzles for years, and are looking for a greater challenge, we’ve rounded up online versions that will put your puzzle-playing skills to the test.
6. Participate in the arts
Most older adults associate creativity with their youth and only passively engage in it. However, it may be time to rekindle your artistic energy, even if you only dabbled in painting, dance, theater or storytelling in the past. Research has found that participating in the arts can keep your body healthier, your mind sharper and improve your mood, among other positive health benefits.
Creativity taps into the brain’s own inherent neuroplasticity — its ability to regenerate neural connections that have lain dormant and unused over time. The arts activate parts of the brain that might otherwise gradually decline without use as we age.
7. Volunteer two hours a week
A 2014 review of literature in the Psychological Bulletin showed that when older adults volunteer, they have a 47% lower risk of dementia and cognitive decline than those who don’t volunteer.