By Dennis Kravetz, author of: Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Live Long, Live Healthy
We normally associate the term cognitive development with babies and children. While many adults do not think of developing themselves cognitively, they should do so, particularly since cognition is one of the four categories of fitness that can add up to 15 years onto our life and greatly impact the quality of those extra years.
You can be many years younger than your chronological age by making certain lifestyle choices, including those that tax or challenge the brain. Research over the past 20 years has shown that certain regions of the adult brain can generate new neurons and new synapses.
In essence, whenever we learn something new, engage in new activities, or even ponder a new concept, the brain will rewire itself in response to these activities. Just like babies, adults can keep growing their brain and protect cognitive functioning as they age.
There are many positive ways to build better cognition and to lessen the chances of developing diminished cognitive ability, dementia, or Alzheimer’s later on in life, all of which make us act old and feel old. Here are a few of them.
Exercise to improve cognitive function.
Exercise increases blood flow to the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory. One recent study found that the loss of tissue density in the brain was less in those who were aerobically fit, which is another way of saying fit people have better cognitive functioning.
Many other studies show that exercise increases one’s ability to learn, handle stressful situations, make clear decisions, and recall facts and memories.
Watch TV and read “actively.”
The difference between watching The Bachelorette and watching an educational science show is how active your brain has to be. Watching TV is cognitively enriching when it takes effort to understand what you’re watching, or sparks questions, ideas, or “aha” moments.
The same is true for reading. A celebrity tabloid magazine takes less brain power to flip through than, say, a magazine such as Smithsonian. Develop new connections in your brain by reading something that’s instructive instead of merely entertaining. After reading or watching TV, make yourself recall what you just learned. This exercise boosts retention.
Take up a new hobby.
Increase cognitive enrichment by taking on a new active pursuit that requires learning, as opposed to merely attending a baseball game or concert. Some examples include: gardening, antiquing, taking up an instrument, raising chickens, learning a foreign language, or selling items on the internet. Read books, talk to experts, take classes, attend conferences, or join organizations related to your hobby. All of this learning activity develops new connections between neurons, which helps offset cell loss due to aging or disease.
Solve all types of puzzles.
Puzzles are an outstanding way to build new connections in the brain. There are many types of puzzles other than crosswords. These include acrostics, cryptograms, syllacrostics, and many other word-oriented brain teasers. Some brain teasers don’t involve words at all, such as Sudoku. It’s particularly good for your brain to seek out a variety. Or start with one type, and as you get better, switch to another type of puzzle. Your brain will establish new connections for each particular type of puzzle.
Play board games and card games.
Games that involve strategy are excellent for the brain, especially those that involve puzzle solving or new learning of some sort, such as Scrabble, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire–all available in digital form as well.
Chess and checkers are excellent games because almost every game is unique, requiring a different set of strategies each time. Card games can similarly help preserve cognitive functioning because the player continues to perfect the most effective strategies according to the opponent’s playing style. You can also play card games with a computer.
Visit museums, zoos, and historical sites.
There are many specialty museums as well as zoos and historical sites that will help you build better cognition. To get the most out of the visit from a cognitive standpoint, don’t be a passive visitor. Read the signage next to the exhibits, try to repeat the key information to yourself, and then do it again once or twice during or after your visit. Not only will you retain what the exhibits were about, but with some occasional recall attempts, you increase the odds of being able to recall the information months or even years later.
About the Author: Dennis Kravetz is a psychologist, physical fitness buff, business consultant, and writer whose lifelong passion has been to study and research how to extend the human lifespan and improve the quality of one’s life with a healthy lifestyle. He’s the author of eight books, most recently A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Live Long, Live Healthy (KAP Books, 2013).