You likely already know to brush teeth to prevent dental cavities, work out to s trengthen muscles and wear sunscreen to protect skin, you may not realize there are things you can do to keep your brain sharp .
For starters, a 2019 study of nearly 200,000 adults found that those who had a healthier lifestyle were less likely to develop dementia over the course of eight years, even if they were genetically at risk for dementia — and a 2020 study came to a similar conclusion. Beyond general healthy habits, though, specific activities have been shown to boost brainpower and prevent cognitive decline: brain exercises. What are brain exercises?
Simply put, brain exercises are activities that engage your brain. They include everything from computer-based puzzle games and reading to playing sports and talking to people. The key with brain exercises is that to really be effective, they have to require you to actively participate in them. Things that are more passive, such as watching TV, give you some visual stimulation, but there’s no back-and-forth engagement, explains Douglas Scharre, M.D. , the director of The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center Division of Cognitive Neurology. “That’s probably less a benefit to your brain than activities that you’re more involved in.” Do brain exercises work?
Probably — but it’s complicated. “Memory is not one thing, but it’s a combination of different things so when we talk about exercises or training for memory, I think it depends on what type of memory we’re referring to,” says Zaldy S. Tan, M.D., M.P.H. , the director of the Cedars-Sinai Health System Memory and Aging Program. Consider a trip to the grocery store: Remembering what you intended to buy without having a list to look at requires an ability to recall things. Remembering the layout of the store and where to find things requires more of a visual/spatial memory. Running into a peer from elementary school, remembering how you know them and holding a conversation requires a quick processing speed on top of recall.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to study the effects that certain activities have on our brain. It’s not as simple as say, watching someone practice bicep curls every day and seeing their muscle girth increase over time. “The things that we’re engaged in on a day-to-day basis that are not specific to deliberately improving our memory — for example, reading a book, attending classes at a junior college because we’re interested, listening to NPR or something else that will expand your view of the world or watching documentaries — those are all great, but they haven’t been studied for us to conclusively say that if you do all of these things, you’re less likely to develop memory problems,” says Dr. Tan. “Speed of information processing can be enhanced by cognitive training by computer-based tests, for example, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.”
That said, engaging in certain exercises (even if they’re specific to one type of memory skill) can’t hurt and may even help you in the long run. “Increasing these synaptic connections — increasing these areas of connections in the brain — that might help build reserve,” says Dr. Scharre. “If, in the future, you have unfortunate issues that affect the brain, such as strokes or dementia conditions, you’d have a little bit more reserved.” Brain exercises for memory to do at home
Your best bet is to all different kinds of things that exercise your brain in different ways. “Variety is great,” says Dr. Scharre. “The more you do with your brain, typically, the better it is.” This list of exercises for your brain can help get you started. 1. Work out
It seems one of the best things you can do for better cognition is physical exercise. It increases blood flow to the brain; reduces the risk of stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes (three risk factors for developing memory problems); and lowers inflammation oxidation (which has also been implicated in dementia), according to Dr. Tan. In fact, a 2023 study of nearly 1,300 women age 65 and older found that for every 31 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a participant did every day, she had a 21% lower risk of developing dementia. Meanwhile, a 2022 meta-analysis concluded that people who regularly participated in walking , running, swimming, bicycling, dancing, yoga, sports and exercise machines had a 17% lower risk of developing dementia than those who didn’t. New to exercise and not sure where to start? Check out our list of the 10 best cardio exercises to try at home or in a gym. 2. Play a sport
If you want to take the benefits of exercise to a whole new level, consider a sport that requires you to play with other people. On top of the physical exercise, research shows that sports require you to make quick decisions and solve problems (Where is my teammate? Should I run faster? Which strategic play might work best right now?) and give you the opportunity to socialize with others, Dr. Scharre points out. “The whole brain is working really well, and it’s a great whole-brain activity,” he says. 3. Socialize
Seriously, getting together with other people is extremely good for your brain. “You have to use your eyes to see their expressions and nonverbal communications. You pick up things that way, and you make judgements,” explains Dr. Scharre. “They tell a story, you’re reminiscing and think, Oh, in regard to that topic, I have a great story to tell , and then you share your story. You go back and forth with this thing called discourse. You’re using your language, you’re using your vision, you’re using your hearing. All these parts of the brain are being involved and integrated.” If you can’t meet in person, pick up the phone and call someone — you’ll give a little brain boost to both of you. 4. Do some math