Learning at 50 and Up: 9 Ideas to Keep Your Mind Sharp

By on February 10, 2019
Learning

Research into Alzheimer’s disease reveals how critical our genetics are to acquiring age onset dementia. Recently, researchers identified a specific protein as a strong risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s. But our genetics aren’t the only things that determine our cognitive destiny. Our lifestyles also affect our brain’s long-term health, and there are things we can do to mitigate genetic risk factors.

Most seniors understand the benefits of regular exercise for their bodies. But many often overlook the upsides of brain workouts. Learning new things and challenging your mind builds new nerve cell connections. New connections make our brains more flexible — making it easier to recover from stroke, damage, or disease. That’s why mental activities like doing Sudoku puzzles or learning how to do something new help keep our brains healthy. But there are plenty of other challenging activities you can do. Here are eight more ideas for keeping your mind sharp.

1. Screen Time

Screen time has become part of our daily lives. But there is a big difference in the quality of screen time you can get. Vegging out on social media isn’t nearly as good for you as engaging in learning on the screen of your choice. Learning and discovering new things as often as possible is not only enjoyable, but will help you stay sharp. Nowadays they have relatively inexpensive documentary films streaming services where you can learn about practically anything—from space, to history and nature documentaries, these apps are a feast for your mind, and they will entertain you while you learn.

2. Learn a Second Language

It takes little effort for children to learn a second language. That’s because young brains form new connections easily. Acquiring a new language gets harder as we age, but the cognitive benefits are excellent. Our brains like learning new, complex things, and learning a second language meets that criteria. Plus, becoming a polyglot expands your travel options and helps you meet new people. It can also help advance your career.

3. Play Video Games

Even though video games are often seen as mindless activities, they’re actually effective ways to get your neurons firing. At some level, every video game challenges your spatial reasoning, hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills, and/or memory. Games that stimulate all these mental faculties get you the best cognitive workout. And they tend to be the best video games for older adults.

4. Meditate

Yoga and meditation relax our minds. Intense concentration and relaxation help promote new brain cell growth. These activities may even slow the progression of dementia. The stress hormone cortisol increases the risks of developing dementia, and meditation reduces cortisol levels. It also helps lower your blood pressure, which is another risk factor for age onset dementia. There are plenty of affordable meditation apps on the market, and most gyms offer yoga and meditation classes. Therefore, it’s an easy way to thwart mental decline.

5. Use Your Non-Dominant Hand

Both sides of your brain “talk” to each other through neural pathways that connect the right and left hemispheres. You can strengthen and form new interconnections by using your non-dominant hand. If you’re right-handed, start doing daily tasks with your left hand: Brush your teeth, write a letter, make your coffee, use your mouse. Start with short sessions, then increase your other-hand usage. It will feel awkward at first, but stay consistent. Don’t worry about perfection. The goal here is to learn something new, not to become ambidextrous.

6. Take Up a Musical Instrument

Learning to play a musical instrument benefits your brain’s neural connections. It challenges your rhythm, hand-eye coordination, memory, and fine motor skills. Studies into how music protects brain health find that it rewires our brains and improves listening and hearing skills. Plus, listening to music is a stress-relieving activity. And playing music builds a strong sense of accomplishment. Instead of re-learning a previously played instrument, take up a brand new one. It will be more challenging and you’ll reap more mental benefits. Once you’ve mastered the piano, drums, or ukulele, you now have endless opportunities to learn new songs or to create your own. Consider music as a long-term investment in your cognitive health.  

7. Become a Math Tutor

Few subjects test our analytical skills as much as math. Crack open a math book and do some word problems or re-learn basic algebra. Better yet, take your new skills and put them to use by becoming a math tutor. It’s an opportunity to get out in your community and help others. Support your local educators by volunteering as a teaching assistant or offer tutoring at your public library. Teaching math is a challenging mental exercise in its own right because it takes planning and creativity. Therefore, being a math tutor doubles your brain workout.

8. Try a Brain Training App

Try one of the many brain training apps you can find in any app store. These programs use puzzles, memory games, and critical thinking tests to improve your cognitive functioning. Most are free, so there’s no upfront investment. And because brain trainers are mobile apps, you can do mental calisthenics anywhere. Try them while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office or taking a cross-country flight. Brain training apps are a popular choice for people looking for an affordable and convenient way to stimulate their minds.  

9. Get a Museum Membership

Museums are some of the most intellectually stimulating places to visit, whether it’s the Smithsonian or your town’s local museum. Their colorful paintings, strange sculptures, and ancient history all afford new opportunities to learn. Plus, museums are a place to socialize with people from other parts of the country. You can also listen to lectures on unfamiliar topics or take art and pottery classes. Museum memberships get you access to special exhibits and events, so even after the permanent exhibits have lost their luster, you’ll have access to traveling displays of history and contemporary art. And most museums give special membership rates to seniors.

The Mind-Body Connection

These eight ideas are all effective ways to keep a sharp mind as you age. But don’t forget the mind-body connection. What you do to one will affect the other.

For example, high blood pressure and diabetes are contributing factors for Alzheimer’s. In fact, some physicians and researchers are now calling Alzheimer’s “Type 3 diabetes.” So make sure to manage your blood sugar and improve your cholesterol levels alongside doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Do the basics: healthy diet, regular exercise, and seven hours of sleep each night. Your body and mind need each other. As one declines the other will follow. Seniors who lose cognitive function soon lose the ability to manage physical health, and vice versa.

By Hilary Thompson

 

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Learning at 50 and Up: 9 Ideas to Keep Your Mind Sharp