What happens if our brain betrays us?

Exercising your brain can help you stay sharp.

Women like us – who are over 50, want to remain in our prime. We enjoy reading about fashion, makeup and hair-dos to maintain our looks, but what about exercising your brain? We gobble up advice on diet and exercise to keep our bodies strong, trim and healthy, but there is one major fear that still haunts us: What happens if our brain betrays us?

It's important to exercise our brains as we age.

We have all seen people who may still look good and who have healthy bodies, but dementia or any of its ugly cousins have robbed them of their minds. They may still look the same, but they are no longer fully-functioning human beings. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to help avoid this fate.

The good news? Many things we do to keep our bodies well also help keep our minds sound. A healthy diet with more vegetables and less of everything else supports our brains as well as our hearts. More exercise means less risk of dementia. Now we are hearing that exercising your brain can also keep dementia at bay. So, how do we do that?


Exercising Your Brain

Learning a new language is hard mental work. Turns out, such work is just what we need. A growing body of research is telling us we must work our brains so they continue to function well throughout our lives.

The advice can be very specific:

  • Crossword puzzles and Sudoku are often mentioned
  • Learning a new language
  • Mastering a new computer system does the job as well, even though many of us dread the prospect.
  • Music, it turns out, is brain food. A recent study by UBC of over 100,000 students showed that those who learned a musical instrument did better in their academic courses even after controlling for socioeconomic background and other factors.
  • Even such minor tweaks like standing on one foot or using our non-dominant hand for ordinary tasks helps keep the brain juices flowing.

You can use mental or physical challenges for exercising your brain. A new sport, dance or exercise program can expand our brain capacity as well as studying something academic. Perhaps this is why learning a musical instrument with both its physical and mental demands had such a positive effect on students.

Challenging Your Brain
Learning an instrument is a good way to exercise your brain

What do all these different options have in common? As a colleague taking a challenging course in a new field once put it; they make your brain hurt. Not physically, of course, but they generate that awkward, frustrating feeling that you get when you are learning something demanding and have no established knowledge, patterns or experience to help guide you through. Any activity from trying a new recipe to setting a new sports watch will do it as long as it feels difficult to do.

On the other hand, once a task becomes easy or even fun, and you can relax while doing it, it will help you maintain your brain level, but is not likely to improve it. I think of the brain as a muscle. If you do not use it, it becomes weaker. If you keep on doing the same things, there is maintenance, but no new development. If you exercise your brain by expecting your mind to do harder jobs; it will learn how to do them.

The Brain is a Muscle

This is why crossword puzzles and Sudoku will only work as long as they are a challenge. When you can knock them off in a few minutes, it is time to move to a harder level or a new activity. Right now, I have started unlocking my front door with my non-dominant left hand. It is not easy. When it becomes easy, I will no longer have to do it.

Our growing knowledge base tells us that learning difficult new things is what will keep us sharp as we move into the future. So master your new electronic device, study Italian, take up piano or even a new sport. Whatever pushes your brain out of its comfort zone will give you a sharp mind to go along with your good looks and honed body.

Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation. She can be reached at





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