Our memories paint the stories of our lives and allow us to navigate every facet of life from the simple to the complex. With such a precious ability at stake, many take active measures to preserve their memories and cognitive functioning.
Studies have repeatedly shown that a healthy and engaged lifestyle helps maintain cognitive function and lowers the risk of dementia. Capitalizing on this understanding, a plethora of smartphone apps offer brain teasers and memory games to help boost cognitive function. However, as of yet, these apps have not demonstrated conclusive results when subjected to scientific rigor.
Don’t worry, there is good news: There are a number of steps you can take from the comfort of your own home to help improve memory and cognitive function.
There is repeated and conclusive evidence that exercise improves cognitive function, including memory-related tasks. Aside from the numerous benefits to cardio-respiratory health, bone density, and mood, even mild exercise stimulates regions of the brain associated with processing memory. These results are heightened with regular exercise and increased exertion. Whether you prefer light calisthenics, yoga, jogging, or strength training, there are tangible benefits to your cognitive health. In the event of chronic injury, low-impact alternatives like aquatic therapy can provide these same benefits.
For quite some time, the mindfulness movement has been a subject of interest everywhere from the top brass of Silicon Valley to the laboratories of cognitive scientists. Meditation has long been heralded as a tool for productivity and stress management. Studies investigating meditation as a tool for mental health treatment, such as for generalized anxiety, have yielded mixed results.
However, there is evidence to suggest that it may be effective for improved cognitive function, including attention and memory. One eight-week study investigating the effects of meditation on individuals suffering from memory loss found substantial increases in cerebral blood flow to areas of the brain associated with working memory. Patients in the test group also showed improvements in neuropsychological tests. Another study found that a program as brief as four days can help to improve sustained attention.
Even a sedentary and disengaged lifestyle involves a certain degree of brain activity to make it through the day. However, watching your favorite shows or cable news doesn’t offer the type of stimulation that improves your cognitive function. The key to staying sharp is sustained engagement: prolonged concentration on tasks that involve thoughtful navigation.
The best way to accomplish sustained engagement is to learn complex new skills. Learning digital photography, a new musical instrument, or even quilting are all examples of the type of activities that require sustained engagement to master, and there are far more options based on your interests. Studies investigating the effects of sustained engagement on cognitive function have demonstrated positive results in aging individuals.
It’s worth noting that the benefits of these sorts of tasks rely on novelty. While regular complex activities do proffer long-term benefits to cognitive function, your brain exhibits plasticity throughout the learning process, which results in increased efficiency during a task. In other words, your brain rewires itself to use fewer neurons during a task that you have mastered. What this means for anyone seeking to improve cognitive function is that learning a new skill will improve your cognition more than practicing one that you have already mastered.
There is an intimate connection between your physical and cognitive well-being. Sleep, diet, and exercise are all just as crucial to maintaining your mental fortitude as they are to your fitness and overall health. In addition to any proactive measures you take to maintain cognitive function throughout life, the value of maintaining a healthy lifestyle cannot be overstated.