Older couple kicks off shoes and dances on the couch

Slowing brain function, forgetfulness, and dementia are some of the most feared parts of aging and things we’re all keen to avoid. Do we have to accept mental slowdown as an inevitable part of aging or are there practical steps we can take to avoid/slow down this process? The good news is that brain games and physical activity can play a huge role in maintaining a youthful mind. Here’s what you need to do in order to keep your brain in tip-top condition:

Mental stimulation

Anything that keeps the brain active fits the bill. Things like crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or board games might immediately spring to mind, but in reality, there are hundreds of other ways to stay mentally active. How about learning another language, for example? Or challenging yourself to improve your computer skills? You might choose to embark on a new hobby or volunteer in your community, perhaps. Any of these activities would be helpful in terms of keeping your brain active. Studies have shown that mentally stimulating activities can activate new connections between nerve cells and may even trigger the brain to create new cells.

Staying physically active

We all know the physical benefits of staying active, but something that is less well known is that exercise is good for the brain too. Physical exertion not only stimulates the development of new nerve cells but also increases the number of connections between existing brain cells. As you’d expect, this creates more efficient, plastic, and adaptive brains.

You don’t have to be a marathon runner; even moderate cardiovascular activities fit the bill. The key is that the activity raises the heart rate to the point of feeling slightly out of breath for about half an hour and that it is performed regularly – ideally four or five times a week. This might be walking briskly, cycling, swimming, doing keep-fit classes, or joining a dance group. Of course, there are all sorts of other benefits that are likely to flow from taking part in these sorts of activities – such as reducing stress and making new friends. 

Combining these two activities

Interestingly, the ideal way to stave off mental decline has been found to be activities that combine brain activity with physical exercise. Dance stands out as the best thing we can do to keep dementia at bay. This is because it’s as much a mental as a physical workout; one is simultaneously picking up steps and new choreography (cognitive stimulation) and putting one’s body through its paces (physical stimulation). It is precisely the fact of these two forms of stimulation happening at the same time that is believed to strengthen neural connections and improve our memory. So even if you think you have two left feet it might be worth giving it a go!

So the good news is that loss of cognitive function is not a foregone conclusion and a depressing part of aging that we have to just accept. On the contrary, there are plenty of things we can do to mitigate against it – and have fun in the process!


By Jennifer Dawson

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