As life spans continue to lengthen, it's becoming increasingly clear that our brains as well as our bodies are amazingly resilient and adaptive. Even 90-year-olds can build new muscle mass through physical exercise. So can their brains, although what's being developed is not new muscle but new synapses. And while some of the exercise that produces these effects is physical, most of it is mental.
Last year, when U.S. News reported and wrote the e-book, "How to Live to 100," expert after expert extolled the benefits of continued strenuous mental and physical exercise into and throughout old age. These are not new benefits. But what is new is the accumulating evidence for how dramatically these activities can promote healthy aging, help ward off physical and cognitive decline and illnesses, and add years to our lives.
Of course, the nation's free-enterprise system has taken notice and we have become inundated with a flood of "brain gain" exercises and tools. Trying to make sense of them and evaluate their claimed benefits is, as President Obama likes to say, above my pay grade. But we do know a few basic aspects of what our brains "like."
Most of all, brains like to work. But the work that seems to do the most good entails fairly challenging thinking about new subjects. In learning new things, the brain creates new synapses, or connections, between neurons. And more synapses and a denser web of connections are associated with maintaining cognitive health in older age.
Doing predictable things, even if challenging, appears more likely to use existing neural pathways. This is not a bad thing and being engaged with tasks can be beneficial. But newness is the key here. And as it turns out, it is common for older people to engage in fewer new activities as they age, and even to withdraw into narrower circles of behavior and interactions with other people.
With that in mind, here's a list of 10 things experts say can help keep your brain young, even as your chronological age increases.
1. Learn a new language. This is at the top of many lists for activities that give your brain a real workout and force it to create new pathways to learn.
2. Learn an instrument. Well, maybe the kazoo doesn't qualify here. But the combination of learning new physical skills on an instrument and also learning to make music is great mental exercise. And music seems to unlock memories even in people with advanced dementia.
3. Get lost. Go to an unfamiliar area and force yourself to navigate it. We're not talking about a war zone, but perhaps a new neighborhood or strange museum or other venue that's new to you. Realizing you have the skills to deal with new situations builds confidence, and gives your brain a workout.
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4. Volunteer. Getting involved in a new endeavor will introduce you to new people and activities. Broadening your circle of friends and acquaintances is healthy on multiple grounds.
5. Get uncomfortable. This is another variant of getting lost. If we only engage in comfortable activities we know, part of us stops learning and growing. Accepting the feeling of being a bit uncomfortable—with new surroundings, activities and people—is a good way to help yourself become more open to new experiences and learning opportunities.
6. Be physical. Assuming your doctor approves, aggressive physical exercise is good for your body and, research is finding, also great for cognitive health. Even moderate exercise has big payoffs.
7. Play new and challenging games. Your brain loves to play. In fact, play appears to have a stronger role in human development than for any other animal on the planet. Again, it helps fire up those new synapses if the game is new and not too easy.
8. Take classes. Exposing yourself to new ideas, classmates and even classroom settings hits several of the targets that experts associate with cognitive health.
9. Embrace new technology. Staying connected in a digital world may seem like an uphill slog you don't want to take. But it can have huge brain-health benefits, as you learn new things and connect with new people and ideas.
10. Keep opening new doorways. Your brain is endlessly curious about the unknown and appears to be a sponge for new ideas and experiences. You should be, too.