As we age physically, we also age mentally. Many things can expedite that process, like chemotherapy, emotional trauma, injury, medications, or other treatments. The one we all deal with, though, is time. At a certain point, we have to be a little more intentional about “working out” the brain as if it were a muscle in the body.
There are a lot of factors at play in the brain as we age. While we develop new neurons throughout our lives and reach our peak brain size in our 20s, the brain eventually experiences a decline in volume and decrease in blood flow. The miraculous thing about the brain, though, is that studies have shown it can regrow and is capable of learning and retaining new information. In other words, it is capable of neural reorganization.
When the brain changes, we tend to change. Mental tasks become a little more difficult, as do forming new long-term memories and performing certain mental operations. Our cognitive function becomes more of a challenge. Other parts of who we are, like our confidence, social life, or work life may also suffer.
That’s why, to help maintain the brain’s plasticity—its ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections—we have to put in more effort by creating our own mental stimulation and treatment. There are several ways you can do this.
When you work out your body, you work out your brain. While I don’t recommend going crazy and starting P90X or other high-intensity training, I do recommend some physical activity. Studies have shown that physical activity is a promising strategy that influences the brain to enhance cognitive function and emotional function, particularly in late adulthood. Exercising regularly is great for refreshing the immune system, which can improve cognitive function and information processing by increasing volume of the hippocampus (the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system). So, go for a “fast walk” or purchase a stationary exercise bike so you can “Netflix and cycle.”
By eating right, you’re doing your brain a favor. For years, scientists have suspected that the intake of specific nutrients can impact cognitive processes and emotions. A primary nutrient? Omega-3 fatty acids, which can be obtained from dietary fish. This nutrient can improve synaptic and cognitive functioning “by providing plasma membrane fluidity at synaptic regions.”
Also, give yourself a rest. Circulation and the brain is imperative to the proper nutrients and oxygen reaching the brain cells. To maintain that proper circulation and brain energy metabolism, we must receive the right amount of sleep. Think of it like this: it’s a great excuse to sleep in. But really, make your sleep a priority. Your brain will thank you 5 to 10 years from now. (And when the alarm goes off.)
Okay, that’s a little misleading. Rather, let your senses multi-task. Some studies over time have shown that, if you can’t give your full attention to both activities, you’ll experience a deficit in cognitive function. But, if you allow your senses to multitask, you could be doing some wonders for your brain. (It’s fun, too.) Perform two sensory tasks at the same time, such as watching the rain and listening to jazz. Or, listening to jazz and smelling the Fresh Autumn candle you just lit. Stimulate to form new connections.
Tap into the passionate part of you that has a soft spot for the arts. That could be music, visual art, drawing, painting, playing an instrument, reading. There are so many options, and they all stimulate the mind in unique, creative ways that help with abstract thinking. One in particular that has become incredibly popular in the last 5 years: coloring books for grown-ups.
Music, whether listening or learning to play it, is always a great choice, as it is complex and multisensory and has a positive influence on neuroplasticity in several regions of the brain. It’s the integration of audiovisual information as well as appreciation of abstract rules that has been shown to improve cognitive skills of attention, control, motor function, visual scanning, and executive functioning.
Making small adjustments or changes to your regular routine can stimulate your brain to create some new thinking pathways, new connections. That could mean just taking a new route to work, eating something new for lunch, changing your computer background, anything simple like that.
Don’t let the ageist stereotypes about memory decline keep you from being hopeful about your brain’s future functioning. Confidence is hard to craft, but treat yourself kindly, take the measures needed to be healthy all around, and understand that the more positive you are about your memory, the more likely you are to improve it.
To scientifically assess and improve neuroplasticity and performance, you can always involve professionals and utilize neuromodulation, which can come in the form of neurofeedback, Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (pEMF), Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), and Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS). These stimulating neuro techniques use technology in a non-invasive way to increase blood flow and functional connectivity in the brain. In other words, our brains have taught us how to improve our brains.