When it comes to brain health, experts agree that the old adage “use it or lose it” is applicable. Mental exercise, like physical exercise, is very important. This is especially true as you age.
Mind exercises help with memory skills and keep you sharp and focused. And depending on the types of exercises you do, they are also important for learning empathy, compassion and tolerance.
As a life-long learner, I am an avid believer in cognitive training and continuing your education (formal or informal). A couples years after finishing medical school and my emergency room residency, I started looking for new business ventures. Only to realize that I knew nothing about business. So I went back to school and got my MBA and then my Law Degree.
After going back to school, I realized how important it is to continually challenge yourself and your mind.
By constantly learning new information through formal and informal schooling, I developed new pathways and allowed my brain to develop and grow.
The human brain is not hardwired at birth. There are many instances where the brain can be reprogrammed. This rewiring process is called neural plasticity.
If you are always learning and participating in mentally stimulating activities throughout your life, you will be able to create new neural pathways and strengthen your neural plasticity.
Your learning doesn’t have to be formal, but it should be constant. Anything that challenges you to evaluate and expand your current mental constructs leads to the formation of new neural pathways.
As we age, our brains shrink and blood flow to the brain slows. Nerve cells can then shrink and lose connection with other nerve cells in the brain. The brains’ cognitive reserve, the ability to withstand neurological damage due to aging, diminishes. As that reserve is diminished, it will be more difficult to perform simple mental tasks. There is also a higher risk of stroke and dementia.
A 2010 study found that cognitive training has the potential to improve cognitive function in older adults and slow decline in individuals with dementia. However, no studies have shown that brain exercises actually prevents dementia. Since this is a relatively new area of research, most studies are still too small and short to test the effect of mental exercise on the development of cognitive decline or dementia.
Multiple studies are being conducted to see the effects of cognitive training on the aging brain.
The benefits of mental exercise are far reaching. People who engage in mentally stimulating activities throughout their life will have a slower rate of mental decline. Mental exercises help strengthen memory skills and keep the mind sharp and focused as you age.
Not only is cognitive training beneficial for keeping your memory sharp as you age, but it also helps with less physical attributes, like empathy, tolerance and gratitude. I found that the more I learn, the more tolerant, grateful and accepting I become. By furthering your education, reading, learning, traveling and expanding your horizons, your tolerance, empathy and compassion grows.
Some of the best mental exercises will leave you feeling refreshed and exhilarated. And depending on what brain exercises you choose, you may even feel tired or mentally fatigued. That is okay. Learning a new language or instrument, working on a crossword puzzle or traveling can all be tiring activities. Take your time and push yourself to overcome your boundaries and limitations.
Mental exercise can take many forms. They can be physical activities that you get you out of your comfort zone, social gatherings or brain games.
Like physical exercise, mental exercise is vital for your health and well being. There are so many options when it comes to mental exercise, find what works best for you. Or better yet, find a couple.
These kind of activities aren’t all or nothing and they are not something you have to do every single day. Start by taking 30 minutes whenever you have time and read a new book or pick up an instrument. The key is to practice and learn throughout your life.
For more, check out my upcoming book The Real Man Plan.
Originally published at www.drjohnshufeldt.com on February 4, 2019.