You’ve probably heard the phrase “use it or lose it.” Brain scientists used to believe that about adult humans—that by midlife we produced no new neurons, and the best we could hope for was to hold onto the healthy brain cells we had. But recent research suggests the truth is more complicated than that. By embracing a lifelong attitude of exploration and openness to new experiences, you can not only protect the brain you have, but also help it continue to grow throughout your life. These brain-healthy habits and fun brain workouts can help, too.
Play a Musical Instrument (Or Learn a Song by Heart)
Learning and practicing a musical instrument improves memory and mental alertness and has been shown to change brain structure and function for the better. It also strengthens multisensory skills and increases blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain. Using your vocal instrument can be great for your brain, too. Singing has been shown to improve memory, thinking skills, and mood in early-stage Alzheimer’s patients.
Learn Something New
The benefits of learning on the brain aren’t limited to music. Similar research has shown that learning any new knowledge or skill has the potential to strengthen connections within your brain and improve memory and overall brain function. The more challenging the material, the better. So while you don’t necessarily have to go back and get that doctoral degree, you may benefit from pushing yourself outside your comfort zone a bit.
Keep Those Balls in the Air
We don’t usually put juggling on our list of important life skills, but perhaps we should rethink that. A UK study followed a group of adults who learned to juggle over a six-week period and found changes to the white matter of their brains, compared to a control group. Similar studies of athletes who play fast-moving ball sports—like soccer, or basketball—have shown the extent to which these disciplines can affect the brain’s capacity and wiring.
We tend to think of crafts like knitting or quilting as relaxing hobbies or enriching creative outlets. And they are that. But studies suggest that they also promote good cognitive health and may help to reduce memory loss later in life. What’s more, creative arts of all kinds have been shown to be natural antidepressants, and to have mental health benefits similar to those of meditation.
Explore the Outdoors
There are many benefits to outdoor exercise. We’ve covered a number of them here in past months. But what you may never have suspected are the many mental benefits to outdoor exercise, especially when you get off the beaten path. Hiking, as well as time in the wilderness in general, has been shown to have extra benefits in terms of cognitive function and mental health. But even if you can’t get out on the trail, exercise has been shown to be one of the best ways to stay mentally sharp through your whole life.
Get More Sleep
If all this talk of exercise and activity has you feeling just a bit worn out—take heart. One of the very best things you can do for your brain is get plenty of good-quality sleep. In addition to the physical and mental health benefits you’d expect, researchers have found that sleep helps clear the brain of toxins that build up in our cerebrospinal fluid during waking hours—especially a toxin called Beta-amyloid that tends to build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. It’s also great for your reflexes and focus.
Which is great news, if you’re planning to polish those juggling skills.