Your brain can improve at any age.
Expecting crossword puzzles or any particular activity to give your brain a full workout is a bit like expecting bicep curls to tone your entire body. Our bodies need specific types of exercise to optimize results—and so do our brains.
Newest thinking: Researchers are now discovering that one of the most effective ways to maintain (or even improve) your brainpower is to tailor specific workouts to your age.
To find out more about the best ways to stay mentally sharp, Bottom Line/Health spoke with one of the country’s leading neuroscientists, Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD.
DON’T DWELL ON YOUR MEMORY
When I talk to people about mental fitness, they almost always say that their main goal is to improve their memory. But virtually everyone is surprised to learn that the ability to remember facts has almost nothing to do with brain efficiency.
The ability to understand big ideas, extrapolate meaning and make sound decisions in real-life contexts is far more vital to effective brain performance than maintaining a repository of data. Unnecessary memorization wastes brain energy, depleting reserves better served for higher-order thinking. Fortunately, increasing higher-order thinking ability may naturally help improve your memory.
MENTAL FITNESS FOR LIFE
What exactly can you do to improve your mental fitness? Here are some regimens that are geared toward the changes your brain is undergoing as it ages.
Ages 46 to 65
Beginning in one’s mid-40s, it’s common to start losing the capacity to quickly process new information and store and retrieve data (such as a person’s name). However, most people in the 46-to-65 age group are more adept at sorting through information efficiently and accurately discerning critical points to more quickly weigh facts than younger counterparts.
Best brain-boosting strategies if you’re age 46 to 65…
- Narrow your focus . Multitasking isn’t recommended for anyone, but particularly not for people in this age group. As you age, the capacity to rapidly switch from task to task (as occurs with multitasking) slows, adding to brain fatigue and reducing efficiency. To keep the mind sharp: Pick one job—such as answering e-mails or planning a report—and take your time doing it. Making an effort to create meaningful responses and original content not only increases work quality and productivity but also flexes your brain.
- Synthesize. Not every detail is important, so don’t let yourself get lost in a sea of information. To keep the mind sharp: Gather enough information for the task at hand, then focus mainly on the key meanings. Applying internally generated novel ideas to affect an outcome boosts brain health.
Note: Don’t feel insecure because your grasp of details may not be what it used to be. This can be a strength—it means that you’re more likely to see the bigger picture.
Ages 66 and older
You may notice increasing incidences of memory glitches, but it is probably not as dramatic as you think. People tend to notice when they forget a few minor details, such as the name of the movie they saw last month. They don’t consider the tens of thousands of details that they didn’t forget.*
Try to nourish your brain by putting accumulated knowledge and wisdom to work. Deep thinking and disciplined use of brainpower helps fine-tune brain resources for optimal performance.
Best brain-boosting strategies if you’re age 66 or older…
- Get off autopilot. At this age, you are especially at risk for slipping into autopilot—a dangerous state, since a bored brain is going backward. To keep the mind sharp: Continue to push yourself to learn something new, especially if it’s related to technology, which can help build new connections in the brain. You will feel energized as you go from being a novice to an expert in an area of interest.
- Stay challenged. The problem with crossword puzzles and other brain teasers is that they get easier with practice. People who do crosswords get better mainly at crosswords, and the gains generally don’t translate into other high-level mental areas. To keep the mind sharp: Take on real challenges that you are motivated to master. Forcing yourself to learn a new language just to exercise your brain will not produce the same far-reaching cognitive benefits as honing a foreign language for practical use, such as for a trip. The brain expands and develops new pathways when it’s pushed to explore unfamiliar areas.
Fortifying Younger Brains
Adults who are under age 45 tend to be very comfortable with collecting facts—but they often are less confident than they could be when dealing with abstract concepts and making decisions. How people in this age group can improve their brain performance…
- Don’t get distracted. Younger adults have a tremendous ability to memorize, but they’re typically poor at choosing what they need to remember. Most people will function just fine if they ignore about 50% of the information that comes their way.
Helpful: Focus on accomplishing your top two or three priorities for the day without letting distractions, such as constant text, e-mail and social-media alerts, disrupt your progress.
- Zoom out. When every fact in the world is a click away, our brains often get stuck regurgitating facts and blindly following directions.
Helpful: When you’re reading for knowledge (not for entertainment), skim the material quickly…find the takeaway message…and then condense it to a succinct thought. Translating new information into your own words increases comprehension and helps you achieve new perspectives that can inspire your brain to generate new ideas and solutions.
*If problems with memory or decision-making begin to interfere with daily life, such as completing household tasks, consult your doctor.