With all this hoopla about stimulating senior brains, older adults spent $1.9 billion on brain training in 2018 in an effort to ward off cognitive decline. But do brain-training apps make a measurable difference against dementia?
Neuroplasticity. It’s a fancy term that describes our brain’s flexibility. And it means you can teach an aging brain to enhance its cognitive capacity. Just as we exercise our bodies to keep our bones and muscles strong and flexible, exercising our gray matter matters.
The key lies in giving our brains the right type of stimulation, on a consistent basis.
Those three pounds that direct our lives are more fertile and resilient than we used to think. In fact, our brains actually peak in performance sometime in midlife, which most researchers define as anywhere from ages 40 to 68.
In The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, New York Times health and medical science editor Barbara Strauch writes, “Middle age is a far more important time for our brains than anyone ever suspected. This is when paths diverge. What we do when we’re on Planet Middle Age determines what the next stop, Planet Old Age, will look like. At midlife, the brain is ‘on the cusp’. What we do matters, and even what we think matters.”
Your Brain On Games
Let’s start with games. They’re not just for teens or serious gamers. Games can benefit mature brains, too. Some studies have found games improve executive functions, working memory and processing speed; other studies hail brain training as a way to reduce the risk of dementia.
The most recent research, however, disputes the efficacy of brain training. Neuroscientists at Western University in Canada say the cognitive benefits of brain training remain controversial because previous studies have not measured cognitive skills and outcomes in a consistent manner.
Their findings: no evidence to support the theory that brain-training skills are transferable. In other words: if you become really good at one type of game or test, this does not boost performance on a task or game you’ve never attempted before.
The Canadian researchers recommend exercise and socializing as a few of many better brain builders than training apps, and at Kensington Park, we agree: these are two of the pillars that make life so enjoyable in our vibrant senior living community.
Brain Training in the Real World Against Dementia
In lieu of brain-training apps, which have limited use beyond the appeal of the games themselves, here are eight suggestions to give your brain a good workout that won’t empty your wallet or keep you tethered to your device.
- Learn a new skill. Any activity that involves multiple aspects of mind and body is ideal for lighting up your brain. Dancing, or learning a foreign language, for example, stimulate multiple senses and “wake up” brain centers necessary to acquire the new ability. And dancing is not only great exercise, it entails memorizing movements and routines and reacting in the moment, particularly in partner dances, which keeps your brain as busy as your feet.
- Try a different sport. If you love golf, try tennis. If you practice yoga, try dancing. If you enjoy swimming, consider tai chi. Not only will these new activities engage your brain, they’ll complement your other fitness routines by benefiting your body in new ways, such as improving balance and mobility, and even easing arthritis pain. Best bit: personal training is available as part of Kensington Park’s comprehensive Wellness offerings.
- Make music. Love to sing? Did you play piano or violin as a child? Music not only lifts mood; it’s an excellent brain booster. “Music ignites more parts of the human brain than any other stimulus: emotional, cognitive (with lyrics), rhythmic movement,” explains Michael Rossato-Bennett, the writer/director/producer of a groundbreaking documentary, Alive Inside!, which depicts the effects of music on elders with dementia. We understand music’s intrinsic value. Kensington Park’s robust Music Therapy program reaches the very heart of our residents, using song, rhythm, and instruments to provide relaxation, relieve stress, and decrease agitation.
- Do the math — in your head. In the digital age, young people are accustomed to looking up the information they need online — and this includes using digital calculators. But those of us who grew up using pencil and paper to figure out sums can benefit from this skill now. Doing mental math — especially while walking — is a superb workout for your brain. And yes, for your body, too.
- Emulate Julia Child. Cooking uses almost all of your senses: smell, taste, touch, and sight, which activate different parts of your brain. Chef Morissa writes regular blog posts with mouth-watering recipes you’ll want to try, such as this Chocolate Hazelnut Caramel Pie. Just imagining making this confection may enrich your brain centers.
- Name that herb! Another way to use food to enhance your mental acuity is to try identifying specific herbs and spices, as well as individual ingredients, in the meals you eat. Kensington Park is renowned for our innovative, delectable, and ever-changing menus, so you can have a lot of fun with this brain training game, no tablet or laptop required.
- Map it out. There’s a lot to see and do in the greater Metro D.C. area. After you’ve visited a new place, draw a map of the area; see how accurate you can be, and how much detail you can recall, without looking anything up until you’ve finished. If you enjoy this exercise, repeat it each time you visit a new location.
- Play mental Scrabble. Pick a word, and visualize it. Now think of other words that end with the same letter. For an advanced challenge, picture the words lining up on a Scrabble board. See how far you can take it in your mind. Of course, if you’d like to play physical Scrabble with others, you can probably find a game easily with other active participants in our Life Enrichment program, which offers an ever-changing social calendar of activities, seven days a week, from morning to evening.
At Kensington Park, helping you stay healthy mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically is the heart of what we do. Please stop by soon, and see for yourself why our residents love calling Kensington Park home!