December 4, 2023

Don’t Let Age Take Your Brain: Maintaining Top Mental Conditioning

Author: Kate Findley
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By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Keeping your brain sharp is more than just crossword puzzles and brain games, although those can help. Dr. Restak explains how you can maintain or enhance your cognitive health and have fun at the same time.

Older couple visiting art museum
Research shows particular areas of the brain are activated when looking at different types of artwork. Photo By Iakov Filimonov / Shutterstock

Conditioning Your Brain

What kind of actions should you take to keep your brain in good condition? Some of it is common sense: get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise. 

Both eating right and exercising are things you can do with friends. Isolation and loneliness can impair brain function at any age, so it’s important to find ways to engage in activities with other people. Ideally, these will be activities you all enjoy, but company can make even unpleasant activities more bearable.

Next, increase your capacity for sustained attention and concentration. Resist the pressure to multitask. Once again, when possible, add a social element, as with playing bridge or chess. 

Enhancing Memory

Work on strengthening your memory. Use, but don’t depend on digital assistants. Develop a memory system and practice it. 

“I had 10 memory pegs … things that come to me automatically that I remember in my neighborhood,” Dr. Restak said. “I have them memorized, and then I can take different pieces of information that I want to learn, and I can put them on to the 10 memory pegs. You can learn your own memory pegs.”

Next, increase your finger and hand dexterity. Jenga, juggling, and model building are very helpful. 

Take up something that requires fingers to be under fine control, like learning to play a musical instrument or trying to enhance your penmanship. Try playing video games, which will increase perceptual acuity and motor responsiveness.

Technology and Brain Performance

Spend less time watching television. A March 2006 study published in the journal Neurology compared the cognitive impairment of 5,000 people over age 55. 

It was found that watching TV was associated with a 20% increase in cognitive impairment. A typical 7-year-old spends 27 hours per week watching TV; by age 70, that means 10 years of life have been spent watching TV. 

However, there’s been a huge drop in TV use since the advent of cell phones, the internet, and social networks. This change has positive implications, as a computer provides active rather than passive stimulation. 

As Steve Jobs put it, “You watch television to turn your brain off, and you work on your computer to turn your brain on.” Thus, despite some associated problems, the internet is still more stimulating than television. 

While TV fosters solitary passive activity, the internet can foster social connections. The purchase of a TV creates one more passive consumer; whereas, the purchase of a computer or cell phone creates both a consumer and a producer. The latter increases the chances of some kind of interaction—networking, e-mail, political action.

Boost Your Brain with the Arts

Next, try to maintain a healthy sense of humor. Humor appreciation is associated with longevity in a University of Akron study. The frontal lobes play an active role in the flexible thinking required to get a joke. 

To keep your brain in good condition, Dr. Restak also recommends developing an appreciation of art. Current research shows that different brain areas are activated by different styles of painting. 

In fact, art preferences may be based on brain organization. It’s possible to look at a brain image and make a guess as to whether the viewer is looking at a Dali or a Picasso.

Similarly, develop an appreciation of different styles of music. Use music to elevate your mood and activate regions of the brain involved in emotion, reward, motivation, and arousal. 

Neuroscientists at the University of Zurich showed that mood is elevated by listening to 70 seconds of music such as Beethoven’s 6th Symphony combined with looking at happy pictures, such as a smiling man holding a baby. The study showed activation in a distributed emotional network plus parts of the frontal, temporal, and occipital lobes. 

In a University of Pennsylvania study, mood elevation with music was accompanied by an increase in performance on memory tests. It’s speculated that improvement is due to mood-induced increases in attention. 

Listen to music that you find appealing, but experiment with unfamiliar music from time to time. Here again, you can make this a social activity by attending a concert with a friend. 

Even better, go dancing to combine the benefits of music, socialization, and exercise. Dancing leads to improvements in reaction time, posture, balance, attention, nonverbal intelligence, fine motor performance, socialization, and synchronizing movements with others. Plus, you can take lessons in new types of dancing and learn new styles, which will also help build your cognitive reserve.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.

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