When was the last time you gave your brain a workout? We know exercise strengthens our muscles. The same goes for organs including our heart, lungs and our brain. While all our organs benefit from physical activity, there is more and more research showing you can also maintain and enhance your brain’s functioning through healthy brain habits and literally training your brain.
While we benefit from keeping our brains healthy at any age, it’s especially important for older adults as they enter retirement, and for young adults and kids who leave behind the brain stimulation of books and classes each summer.
To come full circle, a healthy brain also contributes to our physical health and overall well-being. In this blog, we’ll dive into the importance and benefits of maintaining and improving your mental fitness as you age.
Keeping Your Mind Sharp as You Age
Like any part of your body, your brain changes as you age. Like muscles that weaken, our brains can weaken as we get older, which doctors can see on MRI scans of older patients. This can sometimes be associated with cognitive decline or decreased brain function in older adults, and in some individuals, this presents as dementia.
The good news is that decreased cognitive function does not have to be associated with the aging process, and research has shown this. This is key for older adults who are entering retirement, as they shift away from daily habits, social connections, and work productivity. There are things you can start doing right now to help develop healthy brain habits and your mental fitness which will help you lower the chances of cognitive decline later in life.
- Focus on social connections - this is vitally important for older adults. Research has shown that there’s a strong connection between maintaining social relationships and mental fitness. Loneliness and social isolation take a toll on everyone, but it can be especially detrimental to the mental health and mental fitness of older adults. This social connection doesn’t mean you need a large quantity of friends, but rather quality relationships that satisfy your need for connections. Engagement in our community is also key. Things like volunteering or taking up a hobby are great.
- Manage stress - stress puts a major strain on our bodies and this includes our brains. While some stress can be good, learning how to relax and free your mind from stress is key to mental fitness. A few ways to help manage stress and find relaxation are meditation, listening to music, and getting good sleep.
- Get exercise - regular physical activity works out more than just your muscles, it’s good for your brain too! Exercising actually increases a protein that helps to grow and maintain neurons in your brain, while also reducing brain inflammation. To help that sharp mind even more, try adding a challenge to your workout by incorporating dance or choreography that requires your brain to be an active participant in the sweat session. This is true for yoga too because your brain is training in meditation during practice.
- Healthy eating - some specific diets have been shown to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s, such as the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on fish and plant-based foods as well as healthy fats from nuts and olive oil. There’s also a connection between heart health and brain health, so foods that are good for your cardiovascular health may also help your mental fitness as well, such as berries and leafy greens which are full of antioxidants.
- Purpose - it may seem simple, but a feeling of purpose in your life is also important for a sharp mind, especially as you age. Having a purpose will likely mean creating connections with others and activities you find important, which keeps you motivated, engaged and interested. This will look different for everyone, but finding what you enjoy and feel passionate about could help your mental fitness as you age.
Kids & Mental Fitness
We’ve covered the importance and benefits of mental fitness as you age, but like physical exercise, there are benefits to giving your brain regular work outs at every stage – even as a kid or young adult. That’s why many parents worry about the ‘summer brain drain’ for kids and young adults – the apparent loss of knowledge during summer vacation.
The concern isn’t that students stop crunching numbers in math class or have a gap in learning the periodic table for a couple of months. It’s the impact of a prolonged break from the stimulation and process of learning – losing some of the brain’s mental fitness that is routinely flexed during the school year. There are a few ways to help avoid this:
- Learning outside the classroom - learning isn’t just a school-based activity! Kids can learn during the summer months, especially if geared towards their interests. Parents can pay close attention to what their child’s interests are and help them expand on them during the summer break.
- Reading - reading keeps the brain active and can help keep a sharp mind during those lazy days of summer. Library reading programs are a great option for younger kids and can help expose them to new material.
- Summer camps - A summer camp is a great way for kids to learn something new or hone in more on their interests. There are camps for anything - whether it be a sports-based camp, a coding camp or a STEM-based camp, you’re likely to be able to find something that will interest your child and keep them engaged.
- Encourage exploration - use the outdoors to encourage your child to discover new things and explore during the summer months, like bringing the classroom outdoors. Take up a project together outside like planning and plotting a new garden or learning more about the trees in your neighbourhood.
- Focus on fun - the summer is meant to be a break too, so don’t shy away from fun activities with your kids. A stimulating and fun activity will help their mental fitness and keep their minds sharp in time for September to roll around.
A Sharp Mind at Any Age
Mental fitness is important at all stages of our lives. The best thing is, we continue to reap the benefits of keeping our brains fit and healthy as we age. We hope these tips help you get started on the path to keeping your mind sharp.