How To Keep Your Aging Brain Sharp
We have the highest life expectancies ever. However, living longer does not necessarily mean living better. When asked about the old age most people dread the thought of a long old age crippled physically. Even worse is the prospect of living with severe mental decline.
We can greatly improve our chances of a long and healthy old age but we need to make important changes to our lifestyles. For physical wellbeing, we should stop smoking, exercise regularly and eat the right things. For mental health we also need to stay physically active and stop smoking but, crucially, we also need to exercise our brains.
We are bombarded with lifestyle plans that concentrate on diet and exercise but hardly any address the need for us to stimulate our minds as well. A mentally taxing job will do the trick but what happens when you retire and what about those of us whose jobs are more physical or simple/repetitive? How can we put our brains through their paces?
Brain Training Games
You will probably have read about and maybe even used one of the websites or phone apps that claim to be ‘brain trainers’. These programmes provide a range of IQ type tests in a game format and the idea is that they challenge your cognitive reasoning and therefore your brain, stimulating it and keeping it healthy. However, the evidence that these brain training games actually work is not good. They do improve the players ability to perform the specific games they have been training but these improvements do not spread to more general intelligence tests and there is no evidence playing them protects from Dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Wait you say one-minute scientists are saying there is evidence exercising the brain does good things but then they are saying brain training doesn’t work. Bit of a contradiction! Actually no. There is evidence that complex highly taxing mental exercises protect the brain however the brain training games in these popular apps are not sufficiently complex to achieve this effect.
Brain Training That Works
Like physical exercise, it seems that to be truly effective mental exercise has to be really tough. The things that work are learning foreign languages and playing a musical instrument. Recently lots of evidence illustrating the power of learning foreign languages has been published;
- If you can speak 2 languages and go on to develop dementia you will do so 4-5 years later than someone who only speaks one language. This strong difference is only seen for truly bilingual people who speak two languages on a daily basis.
- Children who learn another language seem to be able to cope with changes to their environments better.
- Bi-lingual people do better on the range of cognitive tests than their monolingual equivalents. In particular learning, an extra language boosts reading and measures of general intelligence. This effect was seen in people who were not truly bilingual – they only needed a level that allowed them to communicate.
- Bi-lingual people have brains that have better attention & task-switching capacities.
- Bi-lingual adults show evidence of less cognitive decline than people of a similar age who only speak one language.
At the moment scientists don’t really know how learning another language stimulates or protects the aging brain. Learning and speaking a language is highly complex and calls upon a wide range of cognitive skills. It could simply be that exercising all these areas increases blood flow and stimulates the cells to remain healthy and functioning optimally. One study has shown that the grey matter in brains of bi-lingual people is denser so it seems to learn a language has increased the power of a brain in a similar way that physical exercise boosts muscle.
How To Learn A Foreign Language
Although learning a foreign language isn’t easy especially when dealing with an aging brain, the good news is that there are plenty of resources out there to help you, many of them are free. In addition, learning a language should also be fun and sociable. If you have studied a language earlier in your life you might want to start there. First of all, you need to establish what you still remember, luckily there are lots of free tests you can take online like this Spanish Language Level Test.
Once you know your level you then need to decide how you want to study. This will depend on your personal preferences, budget and free time. There are some great free programmes, like duolingo.com and busuu.com, which offer bite-sized chunks online. You can start with an easy 10 minutes a day and their game like modules make it accessible. This can be a great way to refresh your memory or build up the basics of a brand-new language. If you are intermediate then they offer a good way to build vocabulary or develop fluency with a new tense.
Online programmes are great for building vocabulary and reading the language but the whole point is to be able to speak it so you will need to sign up to a class, find a local language exchange or find a tutor. The good news is with tools like Skype you can find a native speaker easily and cheaply.
If you are going to stay motivated than it is a good idea to add a social and enjoyable event to your language learning even if it is only periodically. This will help keep you motivated and provide a target for you to focus your studies. What about a foreign language film night? Find a local restaurant that is staffed by native speakers and have a go at ordering in your chosen language. Be bold and book a holiday in a country where you can practice your new language.
I hope you find these fun and exciting ways to help your aging brain stay youthful and sharp.