Male and female senior sitting at a table doing a crossword

Brain training for seniors

Want to keep you mind active? Tips and tricks for improving your mental fitness.

As you get older, it’s perfectly natural for your mind and body to start showing signs of ageing. So if you’re feeling forgetful and you’re worried that you might not be as sharp as you used to be, you’re not alone.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s what you can do to keep your mind as sharp as possible and look after your overall health and wellbeing.

Improving your mental fitness

The volume of your brain shrinks as you get older, blood flow slows down and your brain cells don’t perform as well as they used to. This is a big part of why you might feel your cognitive abilities are declining with age, but there is something you can do to help the situation – many experts believe that the lifestyle you lead can play a big role in maintaining mental sharpness.

It’s all about quality of life. Just doing simple memory exercises can substantially reduce the effects of memory loss, while basic diet and exercise changes can improve your brain power.

And when your mind stays sharp, you can live the life you want. You can travel, make new friends, maintain your independence, and keep the debilitating effects of dementia at bay.

Is keeping physically fit important for mental health?

We all know that exercising the mind is crucial for maintaining brain power, but did you know that staying physically fit is just as important? Unfortunately, many seniors live largely sedentary lifestyles, with ageing bodies and reduced social opportunities conspiring to stop older Australians from staying active.

But the simple act of exercising your body regularly can have substantial benefits for your mind. Regular exercise is crucial to maintaining blood flow to the brain, improving its function, and it can also prevent conditions such as high blood pressure that are linked to the development of dementia.

Exercise also enhances your brain’s ability to develop new neural pathways, which not only combats memory loss but also helps your brain respond to strokes, Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems. So go for a walk, ride a bike or even mow the lawn – it could all help your brain fight off the effects of ageing.

How can diet help improve my mental acuity?

If you are what you eat, then a healthy, balanced diet is crucial to help keep your brain sharp. We all know that diet is important for physical health, but it also has several benefits for brain function.

So, what should you eat to ensure that you stay sharp as you age?

  • Eating plenty of vegetables and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids can stave off cognitive decline.
  • Eat sufficient calories to power your brain and your body.
  • Minimise the consumption of saturated fats, salt, sugar and alcohol – all can be detrimental to brain function.
  • Make sure to consume plenty of B group vitamins, which have numerous brain health benefits.
  • Avoid diets that are extremely low in carbohydrates as they can deprive the brain of glucose, its only energy source.
  • Eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet to encourage adequate blood flow to the brain.

Memory training

Everyone has the odd “senior moment” as they get older, but there’s plenty you can do to greatly reduce the effects of memory loss. There is a range of simple memory training exercises available to help you keep your mind sharp:

  • Use triggers. Use memory triggers to remember important items, people or tasks. Association or visualisation techniques, for example linking the name of someone to an easy-to-recall mental image, can come in handy.
  • Put your memory to use. There are plenty of ways you can practise using your memory in everyday life, such as remembering a grocery list or a list of chores you need to complete.
  • Pay attention. It might sound like an obvious tip, but remember to focus on whatever it is you want to remember. You’re unlikely to recall the name of your granddaughter's new boyfriend if you’re concentrating on something else when you meet him.
  • Answer trivia questions. Is there a trivia night at a community centre or pub near you? Go along and test out your memory – the challenge will do your brain plenty of good.
  • Play memory games. There are stacks of games and tools available to help you improve your memory and have a bit of fun at the same time. From video games and board games to written puzzles, shop around and start exercising your mind. Check out the top brain training apps.

Conditions that affect the mind as you get older

There are several common conditions that can affect the mind and your memory as you get older, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease. This is the most common cause of dementia. It occurs as a result of damaged or dead nerve cells in the brain and causes a gradual deterioration of cognitive function. Symptoms include mental decline, difficulty understanding, confusion, disorientation, trouble concentrating, aggression and irritability.
  • Vascular dementia. This condition occurs when nerve fibres in the brain are damaged by a lack of blood circulation, most commonly caused by stroke. It is the second most common cause of dementia and causes memory loss and cognitive difficulty.
  • Lewy Body Disease. Lewy Body Disease is another form of dementia and shares a number of similarities with Alzheimer’s disease. It is caused by the deterioration and death of nerve cells in the brain.
  • Frontotemporal dementia. This condition refers to dementia caused by progressive damage to the brain’s frontal and/or temporal lobes. It can cause mood, behaviour and emotional changes as well as difficulty with organisation, reasoning and judgement.
  • Head trauma. Major head trauma can also impair cognitive function and lead to memory loss.

General tips for keeping your mind sharp

How can you keep your mind sharp as you get older? Keep these crucial tips in mind:

  • Challenge your brain. Crossword puzzles, sudoku, memory training games, board games and even video games. There are plenty of fun and entertaining ways to challenge your brain, so make sure you do so regularly.
  • Get social. Staying socially connected fights off the effects of ageing, reducing mental decline and lowering your risk of dementia. Stay in regular touch with friends and family, and join classes and clubs to make new friends. It might be a challenge at first but the benefits make it well worth the effort.
  • Work up a sweat. Exercise is essential for brain function, improving blood flow and reducing your risk of several conditions that can increase your likelihood of developing dementia. So take the stairs instead of the lift, go for a walk each day, or get out and active in the garden whenever you can.
  • Eat right. Eating a balanced diet reduces the risk of health problems that lead to dementia and also improves blood flow to the brain. Avoid eating diets that are too high in fat or cholesterol, and limit your alcohol consumption to help improve your mental wellbeing.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Regardless of whether you’re 8 or 80, sleep is vital for proper brain function. Getting enough quality sleep each night will ensure that you can stay sharp during the day, so speak to your doctor if you’re having trouble sleeping.
  • Never stop learning. You’re never too old to learn new things or exercise your brain. So do whatever you can think of to throw new challenges at your grey matter. Learn a new language, join a club, visit a museum or take a class – the opportunities are endless.

Picture: Shutterstock

Tim Falk

A freelance writer with a passion for the written word, Tim loves helping Australians find the right home loans and savings accounts. When he's not chained to a computer, Tim can usually be found exploring the great outdoors.

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