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4 Memory Boosting Brain Exercises for Older Adults

By Julie Hayes | 06/15/2020

An older adult and their caregiver working on a jigsaw puzzle

Most of us know that physical exercise is important to keep the body healthy and strong, but what we may not know is that our brains also benefit from exercise. Keeping our brains active and alert can often be essential to our wellbeing as we transition into older adulthood.

Even as we age, our brains are constantly growing with new neurons forming. Stimulating the brain improves its function and can protect against cognitive decline.

What are the benefits of brain exercises?

Although brain exercises are not necessarily enough to prevent the severe mental decline caused by disease, most of the common age-related losses in memory or motor skills can be a result of inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. Minor lapses in memory can be caused by stress, lack of sleep and the natural aging process, and are not always a cause for concern. However, we can take small steps to improve our overall memory by keeping our minds stimulated.

A Mayo Clinic study showed that older adults who participated in mentally stimulating activities, such as regularly using a computer or doing crafts, were between 14 percent and 42 percent less likely to develop memory loss symptoms compared to those who didn’t, depending on the activity. A University of Michigan study has also found that adults who play at least one mentally challenging game every day over the course of several weeks could dramatically improve their memory.

Brain exercises don't take much time to accomplish and they are often fun to engage in. If we are currently spending more time at home than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these exercises are also a perfect way to stay active while remaining indoors. By taking just a few minutes out of our day, we can easily make these brain games part of our routine! 

1. Give your senses a daily workout

One way to keep our brains active is by heightening our five senses and keeping them sharp. We might try:

  • Listening to the background instruments of a song rather than the vocalist.
  • People watching.
  • Playing a quick game of charades to act out different things without using words.
  • Attempting to identify different scents in our surroundings.
  • Slowly eating a piece of fruit or chocolate to savor the flavors.

We can also try combining two senses by:

  • Listening to music while smelling flowers.
  • Listening to the rain while tapping our fingers.
  • Watching clouds while playing with modeling clay.

2. Play games

We can enjoy ourselves and challenge our minds at the same time by:

  • Completing the crossword puzzle or sudoku in the daily newspaper
  • Playing a game of solitaire with a deck of cards or on the computer
  • Challenging ourselves to solve the puzzles faster than the contestants when watching TV game shows like Wheel of Fortune.

There are thousands of free games available on websites and smartphones that can help keep us mentally engaged, and inexpensive puzzle books are available at most discount and dollar stores. We can also make use of the time spent waiting in a doctor's office by playing games to stimulate our brain. 

3. Break routines

We can flex our mental muscle by breaking a routine. If we’ve been spending a lot of time at home recently because of stay at home orders or social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we may have gotten into a rhythm of doing certain activities day by day. Shaking that up can reenergize us. We can switch home workout routines, try eating with the opposite hand or spend the day without using the internet or TV. All of these activities will force us to think differently.

4. Challenge new experiences

We can also stimulate our brains by trying something new. We might start by looking up online classes that make it even easier for us to take up a new hobby or give something we’ve always wanted to learn a try, such as dancing, sewing or making crafts. If we’re staying at home with another person, we can ask them to teach us about one of their hobbies. Many locations offer free virtual tours throughout the year, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more locations are following suit. Taking advantage of these options can give us a way to visit places we’ve never seen before and learn new things.