Brain Exercises to Improve Your Memory and Cognitive Function

Brain training that involves real-world activities, according to health experts, is preferable. Exercises to improve brain function should be novel and challenging. “Almost any ridiculous suggestion can work,” says David Eagleman, PhD, a neuroscientist and adjunct professor of psychology, public mental health, and population sciences at Stanford University’s Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. “Take a different route home. Brush your teeth with the other hand. Because the brain works through associations [which is why it’s easier to remember lyrics than it is to remember the same words without music], the more senses you include, the better.”

A good place to start is with your morning newspaper. “Simple games like Sudoku and word games are good, as are comic strips where you find things that are different from one picture to the next,” says John E. Morley, MD, a professor of medicine in St. Louis University’s division of geriatric medicine. Dr. Morley recommends the following exercises to sharpen your mental skills in addition to word games. (Keep in mind that there is a lack of high-quality research in this area; Morley’s clinical experience is the basis for these recommendations.)

Perform basic math.
Solve problems without using a pencil, paper, or computer. One small study, published in 2021 in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, suggested that solving math problems improved participants’ cognition. By walking at the same time, you can make this exercise more difficult — and athletic.

Learn a new language.
Learning a new language stimulates the brain through listening and hearing. In addition, a meta-analysis that will be published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review in October 2020 found that being bilingual was associated with a lower risk of developing dementia.

Check your memory.
Memorize a list—of things to do, grocery items, or anything else that comes to mind. Check to see how many things you can recall an hour later. For the most mental stimulation, make the list as difficult as you can. Writing and organizing lists might help older people remember word lists better, according to a recent small study.

Practice a new sport.
Start working out in an athletic way. It was found in a review that was published in Frontiers in Psychology in December 2019 that increasing aerobic capacity, or your body’s capacity to use oxygen for energy, can help protect your brain as you get older. While Harvard Health Publishing recommends swimming for its benefits to brain health, Morley specifically recommends yoga, golf, or tennis as exercises that improve brain health.

Utilize all of your senses.
When learning, the more senses you use, the more of your brain will be involved in memory retention. In one study, adults were shown a series of smell-accompanied, emotionally neutral images. They didn’t have to think about what they saw. They were then shown a set of images, this time without smells, and asked which ones they had previously seen. They remembered all pictures with odors well, but especially pictures with pleasant smells. Even though the smells were no longer present and the subjects had not attempted to recall them, brain imaging revealed that when people saw objects originally paired with odors, the main odor-processing region of the brain, the piriform cortex, became active. Therefore, as you venture into the unfamiliar, test all of your senses. Try to guess what’s in a new restaurant dish by smelling and tasting it. Try your hand at sculpting or making ceramics, paying attention to how the materials feel and smell.

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