Three Drills Your Brain Will Love

You are not condemned to being a bystander of your brain health, helplessly hoping to remain mentally agile into old age. Dr. Norman Doidge’s research shows that you can take action to maintain and even improve your cognitive ability. Here are three things he recommends toward that end, which you can start doing today.

A Novel Idea

When we are young, much of our time is devoted to learning new skills and developing new abilities. But as we age, especially as we enter middle age, we mainly just reuse well-established skills; we can essentially coast on previously developed ability. Because we are no longer taxing our brains as we once did, that can make them stagnate and deteriorate. One of the surest ways to remain mentally agile is to undertake unfamiliar challenges, such as learning a new language, taking up a new instrument or mastering a new dance. “These activities engage a part of the brain called the nucleus basalis,” Doidge says, “which is responsible for helping us to pay attention and to consolidate new connections in the brain when we learn.” For optimal results, the new activity should be practiced an hour each day, with high-quality concentration maintained throughout.

Don’t Defy the Tyrant

Sleep has been called the “gentle tyrant” because every man, woman and child must bow in submission to it. If you defy it, skimping on sleep, you might incur a whole host of physical and mental health problems. Taking sleep seriously, on the other hand, guarantees benefits, including some big ones for the brain. During sleep, our newly established neural connections—formed from the learning we did the preceding day—become stronger. Also during sleep, brain cells called glia open passages that flush out the brain’s waste products and toxic buildup—including the proteins that accumulate in dementia. In the 19th century, the average Western adult believed it was reasonable to get nine hours of sleep each night. Today, thanks in large part to epidemic technology addiction, the average American adult sleeps around seven hours per night—and the number is falling. Expert recommendations vary somewhat, as do individual needs, but most of our brains would benefit from getting more sleep.

Move It

Studies show that regular exercise such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming can slash your chances of suffering from dementia by as much as 60 percent. “Imagine if there were a drug that could reduce the risk of dementia by 60 percent,” Doidge says. “It would be the most talked-about drug in history, but this astonishing finding has been fairly quietly received.” Physical exercise puts our brains “in a more neuroplastic state,” Doidge says, because it “releases growth factors, which act like growth-promoting fertilizer in the brain.” This exercise-induced “fertilizer” facilitates the brain’s ability to build connections between cells when it is learning.