If you’ve already abandoned ship on your usual New Year’s resolutions – losing weight, hitting the gym and calling your mom more often – here’s a resolution with real promise: Build your brainpower in 2011. Okay, wait. Maybe you started reading this post because your addled brain couldn’t remember what you were really supposed to be doing at this time. You may have “learned” in the past that the brain doesn’t grow or develop into adulthood – and, in fact, that it begins a decline in your early 20s. Forget all that. The most recent science suggests that you can maintain and even improve your brainpower long past your 20s, and that doing so will not only enhance your current life, but may also protect against dementia in your older years. Though suggestions for boosting your brain can range from the intriguing to the ridiculous, we found these five tactics to be both plausible and practical:
- Challenge your brain – and yourself. Barbara Strauch, author of “The Secret Life of the Grownup Brain” (Viking Adult, 2010) observes that people gain an important advantage as they mature: “The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture,” she says. You encourage your brain to make richer and better connections when you expose your mind to new, even conflicting viewpoints that challenge existing assumptions. Open your mind to new cultures, strange subjects and uncomfortable opinions. Expansion is all.
- Get regular aerobic exercise. Yes, this sounds like a carryover from your old resolution list, but aerobic exercise seems to benefit the brain as much as it does the rest of your body. Writing in “Greater Good,” Jill Suttie notes that even moderate walking two or three times a week has a positive result on brain function. Better still: Brain functions associated with “executive control” – such as multitasking, planning and problem-solving – were most affected by exercise.
- Learn or practice a musical instrument. “Music is an especially powerful shaping force, for listening to and especially playing it engages many different areas of the brain, all of which must work in tandem,” neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in the New York Times.
- Play cards, do puzzles, take a math class. Engaging in any activity that takes you outside your usual cognitive routine helps keep your brain active. Bonus: These activities are fun.
- Socialize. Greater Good’s Suttie cites research that shows large social networks and daily social contact substantially lower the risk of dementia. Lonely people had a 51 percent greater risk of developing dementia than those with positive social interactions.