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  • Gregory McCarthy

Five Ways to Help Seniors Exercise Their Brains

-Laura Kiniry

Just like our bodies, our brains start declining in health as we get older. This means that tasks that once seemed easy, like remembering an upcoming doctor's appointment without writing it down or learning the movements of tai chi, get increasingly difficult, especially in our later years.

“One of the major things that research tells us again and again is the importance of our sense of well-being, especially as we age,” says Christina Weyer Jamora, a neuropsychologist who serves on the advisory board of Marin County's Schurig Center for Brain Injury Recovery, and specializes in the ways that brain function and behavior intertwine.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to slow brain deterioration, and increase our overall quality of life in the process, most notably for seniors. Here are some ways to help anyone boost their overall brain power.

1: Diversify Socialization

This is especially important in current times, says Jamora, when our traditional ways of interacting with friends and accessing external resources, such as in-person lunches and activities like walking clubs, are limited. “Online experiences, including virtual book clubs and knitting classes, are things that seniors have often watched from the sidelines,” Jamora says. “But now is a great time to get them involved.

Think about their particular interests, and find online activities that are most likely to keep them interacting and engaged. This might be chair yoga or a gab-and-grab meet-up, which typically involves grabbing something to eat and then just sitting around online talking,” either through Zoom or another social platform.

Jamora has also noticed that most seniors are more likely to participate in online activities if they're doing so with a technology buddy who’s participating in the same class or activity. “Having a friend trying out these new experiences with them in real time usually helps [seniors] feel more at ease.”

2: Challenge the Mind

App-based and online training programs such as Lumosity, which offers a selection of both free and subscription-based games designed to help improve attention, memory, and problem solving; and AARP's Staying Sharp, combining various aspects of both brain and lifestyle health training through videos, daily challenges, games, and even recipes, have been shown to help with reaction time and short term memory for some users. However, says Jamora, “We’re not sure how long these games translate into peoples' daily lives.”

To keep seniors mentally stimulated and avoid loss of concentration, she recommends looking for programs and apps that offer a wide range of games to choose from and don’t require a lengthy commitment. For example, the app Elevate allows users to choose from dozens of games in subjects like listening, writing, and math and offers bonus “study materials” after only five daily training sessions. “Even if their overall cognitive improvement is minimal,” says Jamora, “often being just a little bit sharper and more focused can really help.”

While more traditional brain games such as backgammon, newspaper crosswords, and the logic-based number puzzle, Sudoku, can also help with critical thinking, many seniors are also using video games to strengthen their minds. In fact, a 2019 AARP study shows that video gaming among adults 50 and over is booming, with puzzle and logic games being the most popular kinds.

“Individuals who occasionally or even regularly play video games report higher levels of well-being,” says Jamora, “even those in their '70s and '80s. This especially goes for games that are more interactive, and in which they’re playing with two or three others.” An aspect that also helps combat isolation.

3: Get Moving

One major component to maintaining a healthy mind is physical exercise. “Every time you move your body,” Jamora says, “you're also using your brain.” According to a 2019 study from researchers at the University of Iowa, just a single bout of exercise can lead to cognitive benefits, improved memory, and greater happiness. “It can also reduce stress,” she says.

Jamora recommends exercising 20 minutes a day, three times a week, to get the blood flowing. “Just that little bit can really make a big difference,” she says. “More is not necessarily better.”

4: Encourage Creative Problem Solving

Consider your patient’s or loved one’s biggest time wasters: Are they always going into the next room and failing to remember why they’re there? Or constantly misplacing their keys and their phone? Forgetfulness can lead to frustration, so encourage creative problem solving instead. Jamora suggests asking and answering questions aloud (i.e. “Why did I come into the kitchen? I came into the kitchen to get a glass of water”), having a dedicated place for storing both the keys and phone, and simply writing things down so that it's out of mind and onto paper.

5: Get a Little Pleasure Out of Life Each Day

Whether it's drinking out of their favorite tea cup or spending 10 minutes a day outdoors listening to the sounds of nature, engaging in activities that are meaningful and relaxing help both stimulate brain activity and increase cognitive function, most notably for persons with dementia. For some seniors, this might mean interacting with youth, whether it’s a grandchild or someone in their local community. “We often think about the place of life someone is in,” Jamora says. “If they’re ready to give back and bestow the knowledge and wisdom they've acquired over the years to someone younger, it can be a great experience for both parties.”

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