One in eight adults over 60 report some form of memory loss (CDC). A little forgetfulness doesn’t mean you’re headed for Alzheimer’s Disease. But, this statistic is a strong reminder that our brains need a little help as we get older.
The research is quite clear that having a hobby helps protect your brain as you age. "Lifelong learning is the key to maintaining cognitive function," says Rosebud Roberts in the Mayo Clinic’s study published in Neurology. "It's a 'use it or lose it' scenario. When you engage in cognitively stimulating activities you're strengthening synaptic connections, but if you don't use those circuits in your brain, the connections degenerate." The study found that adults who engaged in activities like arts and crafts, book clubs and travel were half as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment in their 80s as those who did not pursue brain-boosting hobbies.
Those benefiting most in the Mayo study began such pursuits in midlife. Not only will you benefit more, but you have time to learn what you enjoy and develop a habit of pursuing your hobbies. Plus, why wait? The old practice of waiting to do leisure activities and travel after retirement has been turned on its head. We’ve all begun to realize how unbalanced a life only centered around work can be. And, worse yet, it’s difficult to find one’s self with few outside interests when our working life ends.
So, what brain boosting hobby will most increase my brain’s performance?
There isn’t one “best” answer. However, there’s a lot of research on some of the most beneficial activities and key elements of a “brain boosting hobby”. Not everyone likes the same things, so it’s vital you pick something you’ll enjoy and stick with. We’ll help you pick out a hobby you and your brain will love.
Key Elements of a Brain Boosting Hobby*
- You learn something new. The brain needs to keep learning and developing new skills to create those valuable connections. Even intellectually demanding activities may not be the best brain exercise if you’ve mastered them. So, we’ve probably all heard crossword puzzles are great brain boosters. But, if Mrs. Smith can sit down and complete the daily crossword with ease, her brain may not be gaining much. Fortunately, crossword puzzles and other brain games constantly require new knowledge so simply trying a harder or different puzzle can be useful. This is also why we highly recommend lifelong learning opportunities.
- It’s an ongoing challenge. The best brain boosting hobbies require concentration and mental effort. Most hobbies can be modified to include this element. For example, simply playing music you’ve already mastered may not help. But, learning a new piece that challenges you will. If you like reading, consider joining (or leading) a discussion group that really makes you think deeply. Or, try a new genre or take a writing class. Any physical or mental exercise becomes easier with time, so our brains need us to keep challenging ourselves in our hobbies.
- You can build on your skills. Look for activities that allow you to start at an easy level and work your way up as your skills improve. This means your hobby can grow with you.
- It’s rewarding. Rewards support the brain’s learning process. This is an important reason why there’s not one answer to this question. The more interested and engaged you are in the activity, the more likely you’ll be to continue doing it and the greater the benefits.
- Bonus: it provides socialization and/or purpose. Social interactions protect the brain. So for a brain bonus, pick hobbies that create social connections. Additionally, sense of purpose helps us age well. This might translate to volunteering, or even just being part of a group or taking on a necessary role.
*Adapted from How to Improve Your Memory
Top Brain Boosting Hobbies
The brain relies on the cardiovascular system to keep it supplied with nutrient and oxygen-rich blood. So, heart health is brain health. Regular exercise protects against heart disease and diabetes, both of which create risk of cognitive problems. Exercise also boosts creativity and helps with depression. Studies have even found exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus. There is also evidence of effects on the frontal lobes, which help us plan and organize our daily lives.
What type of exercise is best? Clear benefits come from activity that gets the blood pumping (i.e cardiovascular). Do something you enjoy and will do regularly. Even just a daily walk makes a big difference. Walk with a friend or walking club for an added boost. Exercise that increases flexibility and balance has major benefits as we age too. The best prescription is to “mix it up” a bit and just keep moving.
Read more about the benefits of exercise and fun, easy fitness ideas. We also gathered some ways to get exercise in Tampa Bay for all interests and budgets (even free!).
Games that involve strategy, wordplay and numbers may help improve your memory (WebMD). Playing various games requires problem-solving skills, which can help increase neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to develop and form new connections).
Here are some cool brain boosting apps you might want to check out.
Language and Music
Of course, we’ve already mentioned the benefits of learning something new and challenging. Languages and music might just be two of the best challenges to take on.
Playing music helps language, math, and analytical skills, as well as creativity and motor skills. Because of the different skills involved, music can create and strengthen brain connections. This aids in memory and problem solving, as well as improving overall brain function.
Studies show that people who are bilingual are better at solving certain kinds of puzzles and focusing on multiple tasks. This is because the portion of their brains that involve reasoning, planning, and memory are further developed. Speaking multiple languages improves these areas, which grouped together make up the essential “executive function”. Unfortunately, executive function deficits are a common symptom of dementia. The more you develop these areas of the brain, the greater chance you give your brain.
Bonus Brain Boosters
Travel contributes to brain health in a few ways. Taking vacations and getting away from your daily responsibilities reduces stress. It expands the mind with new and different experiences. Travel is hands-on learning. And it typically involved mentally and physically stimulating activities, which we know are good for the brain.
Volunteering contributes to a sense of purpose, creates connections and reduces loneliness and depression. Choose volunteer roles that connect you with others or even give you physical exercise. Take on a new challenge such as leading a committee. Or, incorporate language learning by tutoring someone in English as a foreign language.
Cook healthy meals. Nutrition feeds your brain. Cooking can be a relaxing activity and you can challenge yourself too. Get into the habit of preparing fresh food. Or if you know this just isn’t your thing, learn about resources to help you eat well. There’s no excuse not to anymore, with grocery and meal delivery services and meal prep that can be done for you at home.
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