June 9, 2008 -- Conventional wisdom assumed losing your mental edge was just part of aging, but that may be incorrect. Scientists believe working out your brain -- just like you would your body to keep in shape -- could ward off the dulling of mental faculties and strengthen connections between newly-generated brain cells, which people make throughout life.
Use it or lose it. Neurobics may help maintain your mental reserves and ensure you'll keep your mental edge clear into your elderly years. It's like cross training, and researchers have found it's never too late to start, even in people who have some degree of dementia.
"Good Morning America" medical contributor Dr. Marie Savard breaks down the things you can do to keep your mind in tip-top shape, and what bad habits may harm you.
Unhealthy Daily Routines
The thinking is that anything good for the heart is good for the brain, and we don't do enough good things. The big things are stress, exercise, diet, and sleep, but the good news is we can make our brains better.
When you think of stresses in your life, you should know that the stress hormone cortisol depresses the growth of nerve cells and the connections between them. Then there's sleep. Time and time again, researchers emphasize the importance of a good night's rest. It's true. Sleep is important, because it's when we lock down our memories and process them. So, if we're not getting enough sleep, it's bad for our ability to remember things.
Five Simple Brain Exercises
The premise of these brain aerobics or neurobics is to do familiar things, but do them slightly differently.
So, a really easy thing to do is to try one of your daily activities -- brushing your teeth or dialing a phone number -- with your non-dominant hand.
I used my left hand to brush my teeth this morning and it's a lot harder than you realize. I really had to concentrate. And basically, what that does, apparently, is strengthen those pathways and connections in the opposite side of your brain.
Close Your Eyes
Try a safe activity, like eating or showering, with your eyes closed. That forces you to use and strengthen your other senses. Most of what your brain does is process what your senses are bringing in. So, closing your eyes forces the brain to process that information in new ways. But one thing you obviously shouldn't do with your eyes closed is drive.
Games help you strategize, but the brain is particularly stimulated by multi-tasking. So, play games with other people that require you to strategize and interact socially at the same time. Examples include board, word and card games.
Don't Get Repetitive, Do Something Different
Introducing novelty is crucial. Your brain doesn't need anything complicated; it just needs something new. So, take a new way to work, or sit in a different seat. It forces you to look at the world from a new perspective.
Watch What You Consume
You want to make sure to consume brain-boosting foods or supplements. Try antioxidants in food, such as berries, tea, and leafy greens. And you also want to consume fish oils, which also come in supplements.
How frequently must you do your neurobics?
We used to say it takes 21 tries to learn a new habit. But brain exercise is something you should be doing constantly throughout the day. Try to integrate it into all of your daily activities. We have to constantly reroute activities throughout the day. But a lifelong habit of challenging the brain gives you a greater reserve of mind muscle to use. Think of it as your retirement account. Add to your 401k of the brain so you have more to draw from when you need it.
It doesn't matter how much mental exercise you do if you're on certain medications because they could cause memory issues. What about those?
The sad truth is that you can do everything right and still get Alzheimer's disease. But there are some medications which might be helping your body, but hurting your brain. It's worth finding out from your doctor if you can do without some of them, or simply take them on a short-term basis. It's best to check with your health care provider if you're on muscle relaxers, anti-spasmodics (which many older people take for spastic colon or bladder issues) or, if you take any of the older antidepressants. There are also a lot of over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines and anti-diarrheals, that can impair mental function and shouldn't be taken long-term.