Living With Mild Cognitive Impairment

How to maximize brain health and reduce the risk of dementia

6 Ways to Engage Your Brain

How to keep your brain active and healthy.

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Looking for ways to maximize your brain health and have fun doing it? One great way is to find leisure activities that challenge and engage you, and to participate in them often.

What is the evidence?

In recent years, there has been accumulating evidence that participating in activities that make you think hard and learn new things is good for your brain health. People with such active, engaged lifestyles tend to do better on memory and other cognitive tests than people who are less engaged. Even more encouraging is research showing these same individuals are less likely to develop dementia – such as Alzheimer’s disease – than those with less active lifestyles.

If you or someone you know has MCI, it’s not too late to reap the benefits of cognitive engagement. Although there is not a lot of research on this topic specifically with MCI, the few studies that exist show that increasing levels of engagement can help boost thinking skills regardless of where those skills start. In other words, there is always opportunity for growth and improvement.

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What to do

There are no “magic bullets” when it comes to choosing activities to participate in as part of an engaged lifestyle. The important ingredients are novelty – you should be learning something new – and challenge – it’s important to pick something that makes you think a bit.

Leisure activities that provide this kind of engagement are nearly limitless. To get you started thinking about your own interests, here are our top 6 ways to engage your brain:

  1. Nurture your inner artist. To do this, you could re-connect with a musical instrument that you used to play, or learn how to play a new one. Join a choir or start your own musical group. Sign up for a class to learn how to paint, draw, or sculpt. Join a local theatre group and help put on a play. Read up on the art of photography, and see how you can improve your camera skills. Write a poem or essay, or start a journal.

  2. Take up a new hobby. Are there activities that you always thought would be fun to learn? You could build model airplanes and learn how to fly them. Join a knitting group and learn how to make that chunky wool sweater you’ve always wanted. Buy a scrapbook-making kit and organize all those new photos you’ve been taking. Learn how to make your own wine or beer. Join up with a friend to play board or card games that require strategic thinking or memory, such as chess, bridge, mah-jong, Scrabble, backgammon, or even poker.

  3. Explore cultural activities. These may be right outside your door, or half a world away. Depending on your budget and ability to travel, you may want to explore new places and expose yourself to unfamiliar languages, customs, and people. You could travel closer to home and discover local tourist attractions and popular hot spots. Go to the theatre, symphony, ballet, or opera. Visit a museum or historical site.

  4. Do old activities in new ways. If you already have some favorite activities, think about how you could “shake them up” and make them into novel, challenging activities. If you like to cook, buy a new cookbook or search the internet for new recipes, then cook up something you’ve never made before. If you like to explore, look at a map and figure out alternate routes to get to familiar places, using back roads or streets your rarely use. Then walk or drive these different routes from time to time. 

  5. Learn something new, just for the fun of it. Learn how to play logic games like Sudoku if you haven’t already. If regular Sudoku puzzles seem intimidating, start with simpler versions designed for youngsters. Once you master the basic puzzle, move on to variations like Kakuro, Killer Sudoku, and Hypersudoku so that you are continually learning and using new strategies. If you are more athletically inclined, think about playing a sport that you have never played before. Take a class or ask a friend to teach you how to play squash, lawn bowling, curling, cricket, or something else that is unfamiliar to you. You could decide to pick up a self-study workbook at a book store and learn a new academic topic or re-acquaint yourself with one of your favourite subjects from school. Read up on the rules of a sport that is new to you, then attend a game or match and see what you learn. Or, more generally, think of some topic that you’re interested in knowing more about, and research it on the internet.

  6. Take the ultimate learning challenge. The surest way to engage your brain is to take advantage of formal learning or volunteer opportunities. You could sign up for a course at your local library, community centre, college, or university. You might learn how to speak a new language, or brush up on a language you used to know. Volunteer in a new organization, doing something you have never done before.

Make it fun 

The best thing about having an engaged lifestyle is that, if you choose the right activities for you, it should be a lot of fun. This is really important, because if you don’t enjoy the activities you choose, then you are not likely to spend much time doing them. So, the best advice is to get out there, explore new activities and ideas, choose different things that are enjoyable to you, and have some fun!

 

Excerpted from the book Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment by Anderson, Murphy, and Troyer.  

Dr. Troyer is the Professional Practice Chief of Psychology and Program Director of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Health at Baycrest and Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Toronto.

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