Just as exercise keeps us physically fit, our brains need to stay active to be healthy and strong. Cognitive workouts help our brains build mental muscle some exercises are repetitive and quick, while others are intense and challenging. It’s all in the name of thinking more clearly and keeping our minds sharp, which can be especially helpful if you’re living with a medical condition.
What Is Cognitive Training? Cognitive training refers to a range of activities that help improve cognition mental functions that include memory, decision-making, processing speed, and learning by stimulating the brain. It might be a new strategy that challenges us to think more quickly or to become better at remembering, or which pushes us to learn things in a new way.
A recent cognitive training study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that after participants learned new strategies, memory was improved 35 to 40 percent. Even better news: These scores were maintained after six months. It turns out that aging brains, even if they have started to show some memory loss, can be retrained and at least some memory can be restored. “Research shows we are very good at learning,” says Dr. Sylvie Belleville, a professor and researcher at the Montreal Geriatric Institute at the University of Montreal, who led the study. “If you learn bridge and practice playing bridge, you’ll be better at bridge. Our brain is a learning machine.”
Boost Your Memory. Give meaning to the things you want to memorize by making simple associations you can easily recall. If you want to remember to buy flour and sugar at the grocery store, perhaps imagine a flower growing out of a mound of sugar. Then simply recall the silly image when you’re at the store. “Memory works by association, and humor is a powerful encoding tool,” Belleville says. “People think that memorizing is automatic; it’s not. You have to pay attention and be active in the process of encoding.”
Learn Something New. Take piano lessons. Learn a new language. Sign up for a sushi- making class. They’re all great ways to stimulate your brain the more novel and unfamiliar the activity, the better which can help you think more quickly and sharpen your ability to remember. “Don’t be afraid to learn new things,” says Belleville. “Challenge your cognition. Challenge your memory.”
Have Fun. Do something that makes you happy. If feeding the birds makes you smile, then keep the feeders filled with seed and your binoculars nearby. Studies have shown that a positive mood enhances cognition especially when it comes to learning, memory, and decision-making. So pick up that novel you’ve been wanting to read or write your own. Either way you choose to dive in, you’ll be charging up your imagination and improving your brain.
Sharpen Your Pencil. Brainy activities like solving crossword puzzles help our gray matter develop new cells, but only if they’re challenging enough. “Do crosswords that are a little above your ability,” suggests Belleville. “Only a little, because you’ll lose confidence if it’s too difficult. Cognitive empowerment also is important it’s good to remember there are some things you can do.”
Stay Social. Meeting friends for coffee or, even better, for a walk around the neighborhood each morning helps maintain a healthy brain. There’s a strong connection between physical fitness and memory function, and an engaging, interesting conversation on top of that makes the time spent even more beneficial (read “The Importance of Staying Social Offline as You Age”). “Being socially engaged has a huge effect on cognition,” says Belleville. “Plus, it’s a great antidepressant.”
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