How to keep your brain healthy

Millie Owens - 15 July 2022

It’s important to exercise your brain, just like the rest of your body, to help you stay sharper for longer. Check out these top 10 ways to keep your grey matter fighting fit

Maintaining cognitive health – the ability to think, learn and remember – is not just a case of luck in the genetic lottery. Studies have shown that cognitive exercise is just as important as physical exercise in your fifties and sixties. So adapting your brain to new challenges and breaking routines can help you retain brain cells and connections.

Having spent two years in lockdown, it is perfectly normal to be feeling slower than usual. Our brains are having to adapt in ways they’ve never had to before. But this means that we need nurture ourselves more than ever, which includes training your brain to function as well as it can, no matter how old you are.

it can be easy to dismiss brain fog – that feeling of confusion or poor concentration that can affect us as we start getting older – as simply “senior moments”, according to Fabio Sessa, integrative therapist, Therapeutical Community Interest Company.

“As we age, our brains stop producing new neurons as quickly as they used to,” he explains. “Which means our cognitive abilities start declining, we may have trouble remembering things, and our reaction times slow down. This makes us less able to multi-task or perform complicated tasks.”

How can we exercise our brains?

Jo Hemmings, a behavioural psychologist, says that when we reach our fifties and sixties, our cognitive ability can begin to decline. But that positive brain exercise should be something we like doing.

“It’s really important to find something that is both enjoyable and challenging when it comes to stimulating our brains and giving them a good mental workout,” she asserts.

She adds that a study of people with long Covid brain fog found that people can rehabilitate and recover more quickly when their neural networks are challenged. This is because they are effectively rewiring themselves against the confusion, lack of concentration, poor memory and slow thinking that comes with brain fog.

Therapist Fabio says that a Stanford University study showed that playing certain brain games can improve memory, “particularly in people who already have good memories, but want to keep them sharp as they age.”

“Another study from the University of California-Irvine showed that playing these kinds of games can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety,” he says.

So, what sort of games and activities can improve cognitive function? Here are 10 great ways to exercise your grey matter…

Sudoku

Tackling a sudoku challenge every day makes it easier to gain concentration, remain sharp and reduce anxiety and stress. When the brain goes a long time without stimulation, it can create a false sense of unhappiness, but sudoku can help combat this. The improved concentration and sharpness will transfer into your daily life without you even realising.

Memtrax memory game

Memtrax is a challenging online game that helps to maintain mental health. Especially useful for those who have Alzheimer or dementia genes, the Memtrax memory test has been proven to delay and help these conditions. No matter your age, keeping your brain active and engaged is essential when it comes to maintaining and improving the quality of your life.

Happy neuron

Making exercise fun doesn’t just apply to finding ways to make a trip to the gym more entertaining. There’s no reason why games designed to stimulate cognitive functions can’t be enjoyable. Happy Neuron offers personalised training for your brain with supervised sessions, like a personal trainer for the brain.

Specific skills can be targeted with the games that are selected to best deal with your brain’s exercise needs. Based on cognitive remediation therapy principles, Happy Neuron can offer games to help improve communication and social skills, assist with getting back to work or boost decision-making.

Lumosity

Lumosity is an online platform with daily problem-solving tasks that target cognitive skills to keep the brain active. These games help with functions such as memory and processing speed. Lumosity takes research from the lab and transforms it into fun challenges, provides feedback on your scores and gives insights into your cognition.

Queendom

Queendom is full of mind-stretches and quizzes. New tasks and challenges are regularly created on this online platform. Full of personality tests, Queendom is a super-effective way to learn more about yourself and challenge yourself in skills where there is room for improvement.

Chess

The Queen’s Gambit was not just an excuse to look at retro-tactic fashion. It made chess sexy and the good news is that this age-old board game is one of the best workouts for the brain. Sexy and smart - what’s not to like? Sharpen your wits by thinking several moves ahead and keeping track of your opponent. Even a beginner can start to stimulate lesser-used parts of the brain with different levels of difficulty available with online and app-based games.

Word games

Sudoku may be the king of the number-based brain games, but word games can be just as valuable. Scrabble and Boggle are still readily available, they’re great for staying mentally active and they are sociable ways to keep brain-fit.

Jigsaw puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles can sharpen your short-term memory and support visual-spatial thinking, two brain functions that decline with age. Put simply, visual-spatial thinking means using your mind to look at images and see how they fit into the bigger picture. This sort of activity can help with essential skills, such as navigating, packing and driving a car.

Video games and technology

We’re living in an age where technology is more accessible than ever before, with video games available on different gadgets, including tablets, phones, consoles and laptops. Video games are stimulating and can enhance skills and keep your mind sharp.

Art projects

It doesn’t matter if you only ever pick up a paintbrush to touch up scuffed skirting boards. Trying your hand at creative activities, even if your skills are more Mr Bean than Michelangelo, is just as useful as teasing your brain with words, numbers and logic games. Crafts, pottery, painting, whatever you like – these pursuits have the complementary effect of relieving stress and anxiety while improving your mood. And this will naturally alleviate some of the symptoms associated with brain fog.

It is just as important to remember the stress-relieving aspects of a brain workout. As is the case with physical exercise, the gentler mental exercises are as important as the hardcore cardio-for-the-brain exercises, especially as we get older.

Jo Hemmings sums it up: “Along with brain games, regular exercise, a healthy diet, good quality sleep, communicating well with others around you is the optimum way to keep our cognitive function and abilities in peak condition."