May 03, 2024

Sharpening the Mind: Top Brain Training Exercises for Seniors

Sudoku and project management skills
When it comes to flexing the brain, there are plenty of ways to stay mentally active. [Unsplash]

Problem-solving games and memory exercises, including jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and sudoku, can be for more than just entertainment. Research has found they can provide lasting benefits, including reducing memory loss and improving cognitive function as you age.

The brain is classified as an organ, but it shares many similarities with a muscle. Constant usage is important to keep a muscle growing, and the same is true for the brain. Exercising the mind is essential for keeping it sharp and healthy well into your senior years.

For example, participating in activities requiring strong problem-solving abilities like project management skills can be great for maintaining your brain’s health and cognitive function. In this article, we’ll be exploring the science behind that and which brain exercises are best.

How does ageing impact the brain?

Ageing affects more than just your physical body, it also impacts the brain and the mind. Over time, as you age, the brain alters and changes, including certain parts of the brain shrinking, and changes to the vasculature and cognition. There are changes to the brain at all levels, from the molecules to morphology.

To understand how ageing impacts the brain, it’s important to learn and understand what neurons are. Neurons, commonly referred to as nerve cells, are responsible for sending messages throughout your body. They carry information such as thoughts and actions, like walking, talking, and eating.

Normal changes that occur in the brain during ageing include:

  • Neurons dying from ‘old age’ and are not being replaced by new cells.
  • The process of sending messages between neurons becomes slower.
  • Fat and other deposits build up in neurons, limiting their function.

There’s a common misconception that as you age and your brain gets lighter and smaller, it can’t perform as well as a ‘younger’ brain— this isn’t true. It can still function just as well, even when neurons die. 

When a neuron dies, another neuron can take on its responsibilities and function—even if a new one doesn’t replace it. That’s why brain exercises are important to keep neuron pathways re-routing and growing.

The science behind brain training

Whether brain training exercises are effective has been a hot topic for decades. Various research and studies have been conducted, with evidence pointing that it can improve cognitive function and help prevent or delay the natural mental decline of ageing.

Cognitive neuroscience professor Jason Mattingley conducted a study that found repeating certain tasks, like brain exercises, does positively impact brain function. Not only does it help improve the individual’s ability at that specific task, but also broader brain performance.

Essentially, brain training exercises promote the growth and strengthening of brain cells—neurons. It also improves the function of the synapses between neurons, allowing your brain cells to communicate more efficiently, or in the case of a neuron dying—allowing another neuron to take on its function.

brain training and project management skills
Brain training exercises promote the growth and strengthening of brain cells. [Unsplash]

Top brain exercises

When it comes to flexing the brain, there are plenty of ways to stay mentally active. Here are our top favourite problem-solving games and activities you could add to your daily life. Some of them are bite-sized, whilst others are more of a time commitment.

It’s also never too early—or too late to start getting into brain exercises, they’re beneficial for people of all ages. Brain exercises can also come in many forms, for example, some video games require problem-solving skills, which is great for staying mentally active.

Crosswords

A previous study from 2011 noted that crossword puzzles can be good for more than just passing the time. The research showed that it can delay the onset of memory decline in people with preclinical dementia.

Especially compared to some other hobbies and activities, crossword puzzles are inexpensive. There are endless free crossword puzzles accessible and printable online and apps you can download on your mobile phone or computer.

Reading

If you aren’t already an avid reader, it might be time to start. Not only can reading be enjoyable, but studies have shown it positively impacts our brains. Reading can improve brain and memory function, and keep your brain operating effectively when you age.

Reading activates various parts of your brain, creating new neural networks and strengthening previous pathways. Research has also found that reading can also improve your visual and auditory comprehension.

Sudoku

Studies into the benefit of brain exercises determined that sudoku and similar number puzzles can prevent or delay cognitive decline. It’s great for challenging the brain and keeping the player mentally stimulated. 

There have been various studies conducted to find out the effectiveness of number puzzles and cognitive function. A study published in 2019 found that adults aged between 50 and 93 who practised number puzzles like sudoku tended to have better cognitive abilities.

Hobbies and crafts

Taking up a new hobby can be great for keeping your mind stimulated and promoting the growth of new brain cells. For example, drawing, painting, knitting, and playing video games can be great for creating neural pathways and activating parts of your brain.

Especially in today’s digital world, taking up a new hobby or starting a craft is easier than ever. There are endless resources online for starting new hobbies, guides, and finding communities of like-minded people to engage with.

healthy ageing project management skills
Brain exercises and mind-training games aren’t the only contributing factors to cognitive ability as you age. [Unsplash]

Other factors for a healthy mind

Brain exercises and mind-training games aren’t the only contributing factors to cognitive ability as you age. Growing older doesn’t automatically mean you’ll lose your memory or thinking abilities, many contributing factors make up a healthy mind.

Beyond brain exercises, if you’re looking to keep your mind sharp and your mental abilities at their best for as long as possible, doctors recommend a healthy diet and keeping physically fit. Genetic factors can also play a part in how you age and mental disorders.

There is growing evidence that specific food patterns and individual foods are associated with improved brain function as we age. Our dietary choices can impact how the brain functions and ages.

For example, it’s recommended to include plenty of omega-3 fats in your diet. Nutrient intake plays a massive role in cognition and memory. It’s important to ensure your meals are high in vitamins, good fats, calcium, and protein.

A healthy diet and physical exercise are also great preventative measures for other conditions that can impact your overall health—including the mind. For example, a poor diet and lack of exercise can increase your blood pressure and risk of a stroke, which can impact your brain’s health. 

Physical activity, even walking every day to the shop or park, can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and conditions like dementia. It’s recommended that adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity weekly. 

If you’re worried about your health, it’s never too late to start implementing strategies for the future. Stay away from any fried foods, sugary snacks, and processed food. If you’re concerned about any genetic factors playing into your health, we recommend checking your family history and speaking to your doctor. 

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