This Simple Activity Might Keep Your Brain 10 Years Younger

Would you make a simple activity a habit if it had notable benefits for your cognitive function? The answer seems like a no-brainer.

Cognitive decline is a common part of the aging process. But the good news is there are several ways to sustain — and possibly even improve — your cognitive function as you get older. In fact, new research has identified one easy way you might be able to knock 10 years off the actual age of your brain. Here’s what the researchers found.

The research

A pencil and a crossword puzzleCredit: Spauln/Getty Images

A pair of linked studies, which were recently published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, added to a growing body of evidence linking mind-exercising games — specifically word puzzles and number puzzles — to better brain health.

The aim of the research was to identify “affordable lifestyle interventions that might preserve cognitive function in the aging population and subsequent generations.” The researchers used data from another study on 19,078 generally healthy participants (specifically those without a diagnosis of dementia) between the ages of 50 and 93.

The participants had to complete a questionnaire about their demographics and lifestyle, with the question of interest asking how often they engaged in puzzles. Their choices were “more than once a day,” “once a day,” “once a week,” “once a month,” “occasionally” and “never.”

Then, the researchers gave the participants online cognitive tests. Some were intended to assess their attention and working memory. And others evaluated their episodic memory and reasoning, among other aspects of cognitive function. The participants completed versions of these tests multiple times to get an average score.

The results were pretty simple: The more people did puzzles, the better scores they had on the cognitive tests.

“We’ve found that the more regularly people engage with puzzles such as crosswords and Sudoku, the sharper their performance is across a range of tasks assessing memory, attention and reasoning,” Dr. Anne Corbett of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the research, said in a news release. “The improvements are particularly clear in the speed and accuracy of their performance. In some areas the improvement was quite dramatic — on measures of problem-solving, people who regularly do these puzzles performed equivalent to an average of eight years younger compared to those who don’t.”

The research doesn’t necessarily prove there’s a direct causal relationship between puzzle engagement and better cognitive function, but there certainly appears to be a correlation. In other words, we can’t say puzzles will reduce your risk of dementia, but they might be able to keep your brain functioning at a higher level for longer in life.

In fact, the researchers were able to calculate that people who did puzzles had brain function equivalent to someone 10 years younger when it came to the tests assessing grammatical reasoning and eight years younger on the tests measuring short-term memory.

Although these studies identified a strong link between the frequency of puzzle engagement and cognitive function, the researchers still want to follow up with the participants as they age. They also want to dig deeper and find out the impact of the length of puzzle engagement, as well as the difficulty level of the puzzles.

Still, it’s a pretty good reason to start doing some puzzles every day, as the potential is there for better brain health. And that’s not the only way you can work to keep your brain young.

More ways to keep your brain young

senior couple playing tennisCredit: adamkaz/Getty Images

Besides puzzles and other brain-exercising games, there are several other steps you can take to sustain your brain health as you age.

Eat a healthy diet

In general, eating nutritious foods benefits your brain just like it does the rest of your body. And certain foods might help more than others. “For example, people that eat a Mediterranean style diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils (olive oil) and plant sources of proteins are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia,” according to Harvard Medical School. With any diet, make sure you watch your portion size, limit processed foods and drink plenty of water. Moreover, limit (or avoid) alcohol, and don’t smoke.

Exercise

Along with a healthy diet, exercise is crucial to keep your whole body functioning — including your brain. “Research shows that using your muscles also helps your mind,” Harvard Medical School says. “Animals who exercise regularly increase the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought. Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses).” This results in a more efficient, adaptive brain. Plus, exercise is known to reduce mental stress, which can affect cognitive function.

Get regular health checks

Many diseases and other aspects of your physical health can affect your brain. That’s why the National Institute on Aging recommends getting regular health screenings — especially for your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Work with your doctor to manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. And make sure you’re aware of any side effects of medications that might influence your sleep or brain function.

Get enough sleep

Speaking of sleep, getting enough quality sleep is important at any age. Your brain is hard at work as you sleep, solidifying memories and clearing out waste. And a brain that’s well-rested tends to work better when you’re awake. One study found a link between poor sleep and reduced gray matter in the brain, “which helps control important processes such as working memory and executive function.” In fact, this might help to explain the connection between poor sleep and impaired function of the mind and body.

Reduce stress

“People who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests,” according to Harvard Medical School. And chronic stress might even damage the brain. “Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function which can lead to cognitive decline,” Psychology Today says. If a person has consistently high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, it might put the brain in a perpetual state of fight or flight. And in turn, that could make pathways less efficient, slowing communication and function.

Maintain social ties

Staying socially connected keeps your brain more stimulated — as well as wards off some health problems and boosts your overall well-being. “Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy,” according to Harvard Medical School. Your social group can encourage you to be physically active. And it can push you to stay engaged in the world around you and try new things — all of which can help to keep you thinking more clearly.

Engage in meaningful activities

Many activities can keep your brain active, so it’s up to you to choose what you find meaningful — and what you’ll actually do on a regular basis. “People who engage in meaningful activities, like volunteering or hobbies, say they feel happier and healthier,” according to the National Institute on Aging. “Learning new skills may improve your thinking ability, too.” Read books. Have a regular game night with family. Take a class in something you’ve always wanted to study. “Scientists think that such activities may protect the brain by establishing ‘cognitive reserve,’” the National Institute on Aging says. They keep your brain active, which might help to compensate for age-related cognitive decline. And at the very least, they make your life more fulfilling and fun.

Main image credit: FredFroese/Getty Images

150 comments

Carole R
Carole R16 hours ago

Thanks

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Emma L
Emma Lyesterday

thanks for posting

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Carol C
Carol C1 days ago

Wise advice. Playing Scrabble is another great option!

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Naomi D
Naomi D1 days ago

Did I write below that I am 85? I think I did.

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Naomi D
Naomi D1 days ago

I love to read - now books are not in fashion to read. I hope reading on my laptop works

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Naomi D
Naomi D1 days ago

I would love to play games BUT my family do not like them!?!?!?

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Naomi D
Naomi D1 days ago

I'm 85 so this was good to read

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Colin C
Colin Clauscen2 days ago

I agree with this article.

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Justin M
Justin M3 days ago

Thanks

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Chad A
Chad Anderson3 days ago

I picked up sudoku again on account of this.

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