In the Brain Games episode “Battle of the Ages,” we learned that many of our mental abilities decrease with age, but others are unaffected, or even may improve. Just as important, however, the human brain retains a remarkable amount of plasticity—that is, the capacity to adapt and learn new information and skills—even as we reach middle age and beyond. But to get the most out of our aging brains, we may have to make some lifestyle changes and do some training. Here are a few ways that you can help your grey matter to realize its potential.
1. Go for regular walks. In a study published in 2011 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers reported that older people who walked around a track for 40 minutes three times a week actually increased the size of their hippocampus—a brain area crucial to memory and spatial navigation—by a few percent over the course of a year. The aerobic exercisers also performed better on spatial memory tests and showed higher blood levels of a chemical involved in learning and memory, compared with another group who did strength training and stretching. So get out and get some regular cardiovascular exercise, and your brain will perform better.
2. Try doing everyday things differently. Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, has created Neurobics, a system of brain exercises that can be integrated into your daily routine. One of the core concepts is slightly altering your activities to get your brain to work a little harder. For example, trying getting dressed in the morning with your eyes closed, or taking a different route to work. Or when you eat dinner, hold your knife and fork in the opposite hands from the ones you normally use.
3. Practice creative multitasking. Another Neurobics technique is to stimulate your brain by combining two unrelated activities to utilize multiple senses in a new way. For example, try smelling flowers while you’re listening to music, or watching clouds in the sky while you’re sculpting something from modeling clay.
4. Read the newspaper, write letters and play board games. A 2012 study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America found that stimulating activities such as reading a newspaper, writing letters, or playing games such as chess and checkers apparently have a positive effect on the functioning of white matter, the nerve fibers that transmit information throughout the brain.