Mental Exercises Seniors Can Use to Stay Sharp
Approximately 11% of Americans aged 65 and older experience subjective cognitive decline (SCD) –– a condition characterized by worsening or more frequent confusion and/or memory loss.
SCD is self-reported, so it doesn’t necessarily indicate poor neurological health. Still, if you provide care for someone and notice changes in their mood, ability to focus, or behavior, it’s important to schedule a checkup with their primary care physician.
In the meantime, you’re probably wondering if there are things you can do at home to help your senior stay sharp. While more research needs to be done, a growing body of evidence suggests that certain activities –– like working puzzles and doing crafts –– can help enhance brain activity and slow cognitive decline.
Do mental exercises really improve cognitive function?
Many people who correlate mental exercises with improved cognitive function refer to The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) test –– an analysis of 2,832 participants, considered “the largest study on cognitive training ever performed.”
The ACTIVE test found that after several weeks of brain training, most participants reported improved cognitive function. Even so, the test had no way to assess if those improvements helped people in their everyday lives. As a result, scientists have struggled to determine the underlying mechanism that might be responsible for enhancing cognitive health.
While there’s no sure-fire way to prevent neurodegenerative illnesses, like Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia, keeping your care recipient’s brain active and engaged certainly won’t hurt.
What are some mental exercises that help encourage optimal brain health?
There are a variety of mental exercises that can help encourage optimal brain health, including:
Wordle is an online game that’s taken the world by storm. The goal is to guess the 5-letter “word of the day.” Players get six chances to guess correctly.
If you choose a letter that’s part of the day’s word and in the correct position, the panel turns green.
If you choose a letter that’s part of the day's word but in the wrong position, the panel turns yellow.
If you choose a letter that isn’t part of the day’s word, the panel turns gray.
If you correctly guess the word of the day in under six guesses you win. Complete the puzzle more than one day in a row, and you start a streak. It’s kind of like Wheel of Fortune, but on a much smaller scale. Wordle is easy to learn, lots of fun, and incredibly addicting.
2) Work a jigsaw puzzle
Working a jigsaw puzzle is a fun activity that’s tactile and relaxing. All you need is a flat surface, good lighting, and some time to kill. Jigsaw puzzles come in all shapes and sizes –– nowadays there are even 3D puzzles.
Clinical studies suggest that working puzzles improves short-term memory and cognition. At the same time, activities like organizing the pieces and determining their correct orientation, can enhance your care recipient’s ability to focus and visual-spatial reasoning.
3) Learn an instrument or a new skill
The saying, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ simply isn’t true. Assuming your loved one is in good neurological health, they can learn new skills the rest of their life.
Encourage your care recipient to remain curious. Whether that means picking up an instrument, learning a new craft, or trying a new type of exercise, mental activities matter. Not only does learning keep your senior engaged, it can help improve various neurological functions, including concentration, memory recall, and problem-solving abilities.
4) Reading and writing
One study, published in the medical journal Neurology found that seniors who read are less likely to experience memory decline. Likewise, writing letters or keeping a journal helps keep communication skills sharp, while allowing your loved one to express their thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, an active literary life encourages creativity and imagination, while reducing feelings of isolation and sadness.
Don’t let poor vision prevent your senior from getting involved. There are various options designed for those with low vision, including large print books, braille books, audiobooks, and magnifying glasses for reading.
5) Have a conversation
Many older adults experience loneliness, and that’s only gotten worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, research suggests that social isolation significantly increases the risk of cognitive decline.
If you provide care from a distance, try and speak with your senior at least two times a week via phone calls or video chat. Regular interactions provide an outlet for feelings like stress and anxiety. They also present an opportunity to monitor your loved one’s health and make sure they’re adhering to their medication schedule.
6) Get outside and activate the senses
Does your care recipient live in a nursing home or senior care facility? The next time you visit, try sitting outside. Spending an hour or two in the sunlight and fresh air activates all of the senses. If there’s a walking path or meditation garden nearby, even better. Exposure to sights, sounds, smells, and tastes can trigger memories, spur conversation, and make for a wonderful experience.
Think coloring is for kids? Think again! It’s a fun and relaxing activity that requires very few materials. Coloring encourages creativity, strengthens hand-eye coordination, and helps sharpen your senior’s motor skills. Don’t forget about all that great artwork you’ll end up with too!
Mental exercises are one of the best things seniors can do to encourage healthy brain function. Even though researchers aren’t entirely sure how to prevent neurodegenerative decline, studies suggest that certain activities, like those listed above, may be able to help improve concentration, focus, and memory.
Chad Birt is a freelance B2B and B2C medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.