It’s no secret that as we age, our brains age too. So it’s natural for some things to change. But just like our bodies get stronger with exercise so, too, do our brains. If you’re wondering how you can help stave off cognitive decline and stay vital and active through all the years of your life, come with us as we uncover some of the many ways to increase brain power at any age.
The Aging Brain
When it comes to brain health, we’re conditioned to think that aging is just one long, depressing series of declines into senility. And while it’s true that some functions do decline with age—for example, the speed of working memory and the ability to engage in multitasking and learn new information quickly—others actually get stronger.
But first, the bad news.
The hippocampus—a part of the brain that plays an important role in moving short-term memory to long-term storage—loses 5% of its nerve cells every decade. In addition, the brain has more difficulty producing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is essential to learning and memory. And the speed of communication between neurons slows as the protective myelin sheaths around nerves become worn and receptors become less responsive.
Now here’s the good news.
We now know that the brain is not a rigid organ. In fact, it’s extremely flexible and can actually reorganize itself in response to what we think, do, and experience. This remarkable ability, which is called neuroplasticity, can actually regenerate neurons, increase nerve cell branches, and improve connections between distant parts of the brain.
Because of neuroplasticity, when it comes to cognitive function, nothing is set in stone. Which means there are ways to increase brain power no matter what your age.
7 Ways to Increase Brain Power at Any Age
If you’re ready to put neuroplasticity to work for you, we’ve got seven proven ways to help you boost brain power, improve attention and concentration, enhance memory, and decrease your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
1. Read More
When it comes to increasing brain power and decreasing the risk of cognitive decline in old age, few things are more important than reading. Not only does reading increase your vocabulary, expand your imagination, and expose you to different viewpoints, it’s also proven to reduce stress, increase analytical thinking skills, and improve memory, focus, and concentration.
2. Do Brain-Training Games
Play is a natural, healthy part of growing up. In fact, it’s considered such an integral part of healthy development that it’s recognized as a human right by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.
But the importance of play doesn’t end with childhood. Indeed, studies indicate that we can help preserve and even increase our cognitive abilities by continuing to play mental games throughout our lives. Games like sudoku, word seeks, and jigsaw and crossword puzzles are not only fun, but they also improve memory and problem-solving skills.
In fact, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that younger and older adults who participated in 100 hours of brain exercises focusing on working memory, perceptual speed, and episodic memory all experienced improvement in cognitive skills.
These benefits can also occur in people who are already experiencing symptoms of cognitive decline.
For example, a study in the journal Dementia & Neuropsychologia found that brain training in older adults diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment resulted in improved cognitive skills, including better memory. What’s more, doing brain exercises actually improved participants’ mental health.
3. Play Video Games
We’ve all heard about the dangers of video game addiction, and many of us have probably cursed them for enslaving our children. But did you know they can actually increase brain power?
In fact, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus discovered that playing video games leads to increases in brain regions responsible for spatial orientation, strategic planning, memory formation, and fine motor skills.
And a study published in the journal Nature found that older adults who played a specially designed 3D driving game experienced improved multitasking skills as well as increases in both attention and working memory—and the benefits were maintained for 6 months.
Meditation is known to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase attention span, and relieve depression and anxiety. So it’s really no wonder that it’s also one of the most powerful ways to enhance brain neuroplasticity.
In fact, studies have found that regular meditation actually increases the density of the areas of gray matter associated with memory, cognitive flexibility, problem-solving, and emotional regulation.
5. Eat Right
The old adage “you are what you eat” applies as much to the brain as it does to the body. As a matter of fact, research suggests that the same foods that protect us from heart disease can also protect us from cognitive decline.
For example, a study published in the journal Neurology found that lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with smaller brain volume and a vascular pattern of cognitive impairment—even in people who have no signs of dementia!
So if you want to increase your brain power and help stave off the ravages of old age, limit your consumption of foods that increase the production of free radicals and disease-generating inflammation—for example, red meat, processed foods, saturated fats, and refined sugar—and instead focus on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, like those found in fish, flaxseeds, and olive oil.
6. Get Regular Exercise
We all know that physical activity is good for the body, but did you know it’s good for the brain too? Indeed, research shows that getting your muscles moving and your heart pumping improves blood flow to the brain, which leads to increased levels of oxygen and nutrients that in turn promote the creation of new brain cells.
A meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that moderate levels of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and tai chi are effective in improving cognitive function in adults over 50, regardless of current cognitive status.
And a review in the Journal of Aging Research highlighted numerous studies documenting a multitude of brain benefits with regular exercise, including a 39% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment later in life; greater processing speed, memory, and executive functions; and larger brain volume.
Moreover, a study out of the University of California, Irvine, found that even short bursts of moderate exercise enhance memory consolidation in both healthy older adults and those with mild cognitive impairment.
7. Get Plenty of Sleep
When we don’t get enough sleep, our overall health suffers. And this is true for brain health too. In fact, studies have found that, when we’re asleep, changes occur in the brain that affect our ability to learn new skills, solve problems, pay attention, and store new memories.
A study out of the University of Pennsylvania also found that the loss of just a few hours of sleep causes a reduction in the connectivity between neurons in the hippocampus—one of the areas of the brain associated with learning and memory.
In addition, poor sleep is linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, with studies showing that older adults who get less deep, restorative sleep have higher levels of a brain protein linked to development of the disease.
To avoid negative consequences to brain health, experts suggest aiming for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each day. And if you’re having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, don’t hesitate to speak with a qualified health care provider about steps you can take to improve your sleep habits.
The next time you catch yourself worrying about the effects of aging on your brain, don’t forget to remind yourself that the brain’s plastic nature means that age-related cognitive decline isn’t an inevitability. With proper nutrition, exercise, and brain training, you can help keep your cognitive abilities strong at any age.