Brain fog. Senior moments. Alzheimer’s disease. At nearly every stage of adult life, memory and cognition top the list of health concerns for Americans. Indeed, scientists have found that cognitive function, speed, and memory start to slowly decline at age 30.
Fortunately, researchers have good news, too: We can harness the power of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to build new neural connections throughout the entire life span—to regain and even improve upon the mental sharpness of youth. Just as a muscle grows stronger with exercise, the brain grows stronger when challenged.
Try these three simple strategies to boost your brainpower at any age.
Try new things
Your brain isn’t just designed to think: It’s designed to learn. To fulfill its potential, it needs to encounter new challenges and novel experiences. Novelty can come in the form of taking a different route to work, or in trying a different role once you’re there. It can mean learning a musical instrument or studying a new language. The idea is to do something that doesn’t come easily so your brain will grow and develop new neural connections to meet the additional cognitive demand.
Play new games
Crossword puzzles, sudoku, and games like poker, bridge, and chess all keep your mind busy, but it’s really only when you’re learning them that they change your brain. Once they become easy, you can add more challenge by seeking out more advanced puzzles or opponents, or start learning a new game to add to your repertoire.
Train your brain
There are countless apps and computer programs that offer what’s called brain games that are designed to challenge your memory and skill, but it’s important to differentiate these from brain-training programs. Brain games are fun and stimulating, and you may become more adept at them the more you play, but they don’t necessarily help you develop skills that translate to other tasks.
Brain-training programs can look a lot like brain games, but there’s a key difference. Legitimate programs are developed by neuroscientists to improve on the building blocks of cognition in a way that yields real-world benefits. Brain-training has been used in neurorehabilitation programs to help people with brain injuries regain lost skills, but it’s now also available to anyone with a phone or computer and a desire to improve daily cognitive abilities.
When scientists study cognitive function, they break it down into different domains that brain-training exercises can then target:
- Processing speed refers to how quickly your brain can make sense of information. For example, how quickly can you decipher a simple code?
- Attention refers to your ability to zero in on what you want to notice while also suppressing what you don’t. Can you read this article while the radio is on in the background?
- Executive function is your ability to plan and organize.
- Memory refers to several things: Your working memory is the ability to keep information in mind in the moment, while short-term and long-term memory refer to storage and retrieval. In healthy people, these domains are all related—and all trainable.
If you practice a skill in a brain-training program and then see improvement in a similar cognitive task, it’s called near transfer. For example, if you train with an exercise in which you have to remember a growing list of words and can then remember more words when your doctor tests your memory, your performance on test represents “near transfer” from the brain-training program.
The more desirable—and more elusive—goal is called “far transfer.” That means that the skill you learned in the game can lead to improvements in unrelated or real-world tasks.
Consider driving. As we get older and our processing speed slows, our peripheral vision diminishes. This isn’t a problem in the eyes: It’s a change in how quickly and accurately the brain is processing information coming from the periphery. Because this is a processing issue, it’s a trainable skill.
To improve it, neuroscientists at BrainHQ developed a game in which one image briefly appears in the center of the computer or phone screen while a second appears in the periphery. The player must answer questions about both of the items. Each time the player answers correctly, the exercise speeds up slightly, gently nudging the brain toward faster processing speeds. If it gets too fast and the player begins to make errors, the game slows down so the player can catch up. Over time, the training rewires how the brain processes information and provides real-world benefits: In a study of 2,800 adults, an independent team of researchers reported that people who trained with the exercise experienced a 48 percent reduction in at-fault car crashes.
Balance. That same slowed visual system is one of the reasons for the higher risk of falls in older people. The briefest delay in transmitting visual data to the brain can mean the difference between quickly steadying oneself or experiencing an injurious tumble. After studying the effects of brain training on balance and walking in seniors, researchers from Chicago’s Northwestern University and the University of Illinois Chicago suggested that improving visual speed and attention appear to improve walking speed and steadiness.
Hearing. Slowed processing speed can affect hearing as well. While physical causes of hearing loss are common as we age, they’re not always what’s causing you to struggle to hear in a noisy restaurant or to need to turn up the television. In many cases, the brain’s auditory system no longer has the speed and accuracy needed to hear fast speech amidst noise. Furthermore, a large study at the Mayo Clinic found that using brain training to rewire the brain to make the auditory system faster and more accurate improved memory, too.
Brain training has been shown to improve cognitive performance in a growing body of research, but there’s more you can do to enjoy a brain-healthy lifestyle. Exercising, eating a healthy diet, managing chronic health conditions, and maintaining social connections are all strongly linked to cognitive benefits.