“As we age, there is no reason to assume we will lose our cognitive abilities,” says Adrienne Rosenberg, M.S., Project Director for the Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife. “But we use the analogy, ‘use it or lose it.’ It’s important to take time to engage in activities that stimulate our cognitive reserve and maintain it as long as possible.” Here are some ways to get started:
- Daily crossword and Sudoku puzzles can be great exercises but make sure to keep progressing to higher levels. Rosenberg compares it to weightlifting, explaining, “You won’t see results if you always lift the same three pounds.”
- If you enjoy reading, join a book discussion group to engage in dialogue about what you’ve learned.
- Don’t indulge in too much mindless television. Instead, stay up-to-date on the news, politics and issues you care about.
- Consider enrolling in a college course on a subject that has always interested you.
- To keep memory skills sharp, practice remembering and reciting a list of words every day. Constantly add to the list to make this exercise challenging.
- Use association to maintain and boost your memory. For example, when meeting someone for the first time and they have the same name as your cousin; note that association to use in the future.
- Stay responsible for your own bills, medications, errands and scheduling appointments as much as possible. These seemingly mundane tasks are important in exercising reasoning skills.
- Don’t underestimate social interaction. “There’s something to be said about listening to other people’s ideas and views,” Rosenberg says. “It makes you think about your own beliefs and keeps you engaged.”
For busy adults, days can be filled juggling work, appointments and household chores, providing plenty of stimulation to keep cognitive skills sharp. For seniors adjusting to a slower daily pace, it can take more effort to create opportunities to exercise these skills regularly.
“Anything you do that is intellectually stimulating will probably be beneficial,” Rosenberg says. “It’s important to realize that just because you’re in your eighties doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do to maintain or improve cognitive skills.”
Research has shown that the brain depends on environmental stimulation to remain active and flexible throughout our lifetime. From 1996 to 2002, the Institute for Aging Research (IFAR) at Hebrew SeniorLife was one of six sites involved in the largest study to date testing exercises designed to improve performance in one of three cognitive areas: speed of processing, reasoning and memory. Sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Nursing Research, the study was called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE, and included 2,802 healthy individuals, still living independently, between 65 and 94 years of age. Last year, ACTIVE participants returned to complete their 10th annual follow-up assessments.