Health and Wellness

16 ways for seniors to boost brain health

Discover tips to enhance your memory and cognitive skills, from dancing to doing puzzles.

A little girl and her grandmother are sitting in a window seat of a house both interacting with their chosen media. The grandmother is filling out a crossword puzzle whilst the little girl plays on her digital tablet.

Do you want to keep your brain sharp and problem-solving skills intact for as long as possible? Good news: it can be as easy as doing Wordle or Sudoku puzzles each day, socializing, going for a sunny walk or playing your favourite tunes. In the same way that daily physical activity strengthens your body, you can also make smart choices to boost your brain health, cognitive abilities and memory, as well as your mental health and quality of life. (And in some cases, even lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.) From mind stimulating activities like playing board games to dancing with friends, read on to discover the best ways to exercise your aging brain. 

Residents at Amica know all about fun and engaging social activities that enhance brain power. As Samantha Edhouse, a Life Enrichment Coordinator at Amica Newmarket, says, “Our residents love playing Jeopardy and Trivia together, listening to visiting guest speakers like historian Lianne Harris and participating in current event groups, where seniors discuss the news.” 

What is brain health? 

We take our brain for granted, yet this vital organ controls thinking, emotion, memory, motor skills, touch and all the processes that regulate our body, like breathing. As we age, our brains change, sometimes shrinking in certain regions or getting less blood flow. It’s normal and common for older adults to find multitasking or recalling words or names a bit slower, for example. And yet we can continue to learn and make healthy choices that optimize the integrity of our brain — even late in life. Download our Keep Your Aging Brain Sharp visual guide that outlines smart daily choices to improve your brain health, cognitive abilities and memory, while potentially lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Read 8 stimulating activities to stay mentally sharp as you age to better understand brain “plasticity” and how you can help your brain cells better connect and communicate with a healthy diet, physical exercise, brain activities and more.

What is the healthiest lifestyle possible for the brain?

Yes, seniors can improve their brain health. While you can’t control your age or your genetic makeup, there are plenty of lifestyle choices that enhance mental function, reduce risks to cognitive health and lower the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. These include:

  • Being socially active;
  • Quitting smoking;
  • Being physically active;
  • Eating healthy and avoiding obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure;
  • Limiting alcohol intake;
  • Reducing stress and treating depression;
  • Avoiding falls or certain sports that can lead to head injuries;
  • Improving your sleep so you get 7 to 8 hours a night; and
  • Learning new skills and doing daily brain boosting activities.

What is the ideal diet for optimal brain function? 

Some of the best foods for your body are good for your brain health, too. According to the Mayo Clinic, noshing on some of the healthy foods below (and skipping unhealthy items) can slow brain aging by as much as 7.5 years. They’re also associated with diets that help manage blood pressure and lower the risk of obesity and diabetes. So enjoy more of these:

  • Vegetables and especially leafy greens such as spinach, lettuce, kale, broccoli and collards;
  • Fresh fruits and particularly flavonoid-rich blueberries and strawberries;
  • Fish such as salmon, trout, albacore tuna, sardines and herring with omega-3 fatty acids;
  • Raw, unsalted nuts and seeds that offer fat-soluble vitamin E;
  • Extra-virgin olive oil in lieu of butter and margarine;
  • Spices such as pepper, turmeric, saffron and cinnamon;
  • Antioxidant-rich dark chocolate; and
  • Green tea, regular tea and coffee (but be sure to drink lots of water, too).

Seniors need more of certain nutrients than their younger counterparts, so be sure to bookmark our Guide to healthy eating for seniors, Healthy eating tips from Canada’s Food Guide and the Most needed nutrients for seniors list for more nutrition advice.

What effects does physical exercise have on the brain?

You already know that being active will help you stay strong, fight disease and feel energized. But have you wondered how physical workouts help you mentally? Research suggests that exercise increases blood flow, lowers stress, stimulates brain function, thinking and memory and reduces Alzheimer’s risk. (Even if you start later in life.) Brisk walking, dancing, yoga, Tai Chi and other types of mind-body, strength and aerobic exercise are all beneficial. Learning new fitness routines and sports boosts your mind and your body. At Amica, residents can take cardio drumming, seated yoga and dance classes, walk with friends on the terrace, work out in the fitness centre or swim laps in the pool, for instance.

Can brain exercise help older adults?

“Brain exercises to improve memory, cognition and creativity” sounds so serious and technical, yet covers pretty much anything that challenges your mind. So you can improve brain function doing all sorts of cognitive activities that you enjoy, like playing Uno, doing word searches or a jigsaw puzzle, learning to play a song, hitting the high score on an online game or trying some new salsa dance moves. Mix up these different mental exercises for maximum effect.

  1. Discover the benefits of puzzling. Different types of puzzle games work different parts of your brain. Word puzzles and crossword puzzles require verbal memory, jigsaw puzzles call on visual-spatial working memory skills, while Sudoku relies on short-term memory and concentration. So they all keep your mind active. One study of 19,100 people over 50 found that puzzle takers had brain function equivalent to people 10 years younger than them. 

  2. Try an online game or brain training app. Any game on your computer, phone or tablet that includes problem solving, memory and increasing levels of challenge and skill offers cognitive stimulation to benefit your brain. Luminosity, Elevate, BrainHQ, CogniFit, SharpBrains and other sites and apps also offer memory games and brain training exercises that target different cognitive skills. Read “Are brain games helpful?” to learn how to get the most out of brain stimulating games. 

  3. Play cards, chess, mah-jong and other single and multi-player games. Any game that involves skill, memory, counting, strategy and other cognitive abilities can help you stay sharp. So whether you like bingo, bridge or Monopoly and other board games, playing often is good for your brain. Solo play works but playing with others gives you the added brain benefit of socialization.
    Given the recent popularity of The Queen’s Gambit Netflix series, you may wonder specifically what playing chess does for the mind. Studies suggest that playing chess improves memory, creativity and problem-solving skills because you need to consider potential patterns and think several moves ahead. 

  4. Learn a new language or skill. Our brain benefits every time we learn something new but taking on a complex challenge such as learning a new language triggers extensive neuroplasticity. Try Duolingo or Rosetta Stone to boost your fluency at home. Increasing your personal vocabulary with tools like WordUp or will likewise stimulate your mind, as will learning another complex skill. If you take dancing lessons and pick up complicated line-dancing or Tango moves, for instance, you’re keeping your body and brain active. A complicated craft or knitting pattern will foster brain connections while also lowering stress.

  5. Take on hobbies that make you smarter. Writing a journal or short stories, reading articles and books, gardening and many other common hobbies encourage you to think creatively, learn new information and manage stress — all good things for your brain.

How can you improve your memory?

It’s perfectly normal to forget someone’s name or the reason why you opened the fridge, so don’t worry if this happens to you. Still, there are specific memory tricks you can try in addition to the memory-boosting, mind stimulating activities and brain exercises noted above.

  1. Write things down. Aside from the helpful note, the mere act of writing helps you remember things better. Learn the science behind that in our Expert memory tips for seniors article.
  2. Use lists, calendars and planning tools. Relying on these tools implies that you’re not memorizing things, but it actually frees your mind to learn and remember more important things. Likewise, designating specific spaces to store certain items at home will mean that you’re not wasting brain power trying to find your keys, for instance.
  3. Talk to yourself. No, you’re not “losing it” when you do this — you’re helping yourself remember. (Because the way the brain thinks is often naturally disorganized.) So if you say to yourself, “I’m going to the bedroom to get my book,” you’re more likely to follow through without forgetting. Find out more about why self talk is such a powerful cognitive tool in our post, “The memory trick you’ve already been practicing.” 

How does meditation exercise your brain?

Meditation doesn’t just relieve stress and anxiety. By training your mind to focus on your breath, body and the present moment — instead of its typical stream of thoughts, memories and worries — you’re giving your brain a workout. In fact, studies show that meditating improves concentration and helps preserve the aging brain, among other benefits. Bookmark the following resources for helpful meditation exercises and advice:

How does music benefit your brain?

Whether you listen to music on the radio, learn new songs to sing or play an instrument, music can help keep your brain young. It also heightens memory and lowers stress. Here are a few examples of how music activates your brain:

  • When you listen to live or recorded music, your mind processes the structure and relationship of the notes – especially if the music is unfamiliar;
  • Music can help your mind and body relax;
  • Songs can unlock old memories, even in seniors with dementia; and
  • Older adults who take music lessons experience improved memory, attention and problem-solving abilities.

Musical activities are hugely popular at Amica Newmarket, says Edhouse. “Each week we have a different live entertainer who comes in to perform. Residents also love playing Name That Tune and Music Bingo. One resident runs a Music Circle Sing Along and we also organize a Cabaret for residents to perform in!”

Inspired? Book a tour and read How music boosts your happiness and brain activity to understand why music is so powerful for seniors, as well as ideas to incorporate more music into your daily life.

How can you protect your brain from stress?

Occasional stress is unavoidable and sometimes even beneficial if we’re learning, but long-term stress can change your brain and impact memory. Basically, if one part of your brain is often dealing with difficult or emotional challenges, other parts of your brain that handle memory or other tasks may be less able to perform. (Stress can also contribute to high-blood pressure, heart-disease, diabetes and cancer risk.)

Stress- and anxiety-busting techniques such as exercise, mindfulness, meditation and getting enough sleep can help, but older adults may also benefit from targeted supports for chronic stress. For example, one Harvard Special Report suggests talking to your healthcare provider about options such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, assertiveness training or a support group.

What role does sleep play in brain health?

Getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each day can enhance seniors’ mood, attention, memory, creativity and ability to learn and solve problems. Unfortunately, changing circadian rhythms and other medical and sleep challenges can make it difficult for older adults to get a good night’s rest. Review the following resources for expert advice on how to fall and stay asleep:

Can socializing exercise your brain?

Book a lunch date with a friend, call a family member or invite a neighbour over, because interacting with others boosts older adults’ well-being and cognitive function. (Talking with people and doing activities together stimulates your brain.) In contrast, loneliness and isolation can significantly increase one’s likelihood of dementia, depression and heart disease, among other risks. So regularly connecting with family and friends can be a real life saver.
If you’re socializing less often than you’d like, you may want to consider senior living. At Amica, you’re empowered to make your own schedule but can also take advantage of a full roster of optional activities and lifestyle experiences. You can join a friend at the pub or the fitness centre, go on an excursion to a local gallery or winery, sample a new dish at a cooking demonstration or learn to make crafts with beeswax from Amica’s own honeybee hives, for instance. Whatever you choose, it’s bound to be engaging and invigorating. As Edhouse says, “Our residents just love learning new things, competing in social games and most importantly, having a good laugh!” 
Book a virtual or in-person tour to find out what it’s like to enjoy living on your own terms in an elegant Amica residence with outstanding dining, amenities, activities, senior care and safety measures.