It’s never too early to start maintaining your brain health – but should you do crosswords or CrossFit to protect your grey matter? The experts weigh in on the proven ways to stay mentally sharp.
How often do you break a mental sweat? It’s not an insignificant question. More than 400,000 Aussies are currently living with dementia, a number that’s expected to rise to more than 600,000 by 2030, and there’s evidence that challenging your brain in the same way you work out your body can offer protection against its ravages.
But are ‘brain training’ apps helpful? Or are you better off doing a crossword or learning a new language? Should you set aside brain training time like you schedule in gym sessions?
Firstly, it’s important to make a distinction between cognitive decline and dementia. The first is a natural part of ageing, while the second is a disease.
“People’s cognitive abilities slow down naturally with age,” explained dementia researcher Dr Clare Walton.
“But when they have a disease, that decline can be about four times faster. And just like other diseases, dementia has causes and we’re starting to learn there are things we can do to prevent the likelihood of it developing.”
Where’s the evidence?
The ones with the most evidence to support them are eating healthily and exercising, so tackle them first. And brain training?
“A key problem is that most studies are observational, so they ask people how often they do things like crosswords and then see how that correlates with their chances of developing dementia,” said Dr Walton.
“Nobody’s taken a large group and said ‘OK, you guys watch TV and you guys do puzzles and then we’ll see how that affects things in 20 years.’ It’s possible that people who do crosswords also do something else that has a protective effect. Maybe they enjoy things that cognitively challenge them, or take a lifelong approach to learning in general.”
This last part is key, because lifelong cognitive stimulation may protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
“It’s about challenging yourself in your daily life,” sayid expert puzzle-setter Dr Gareth Moore.
“If you have a job that hugely challenges you all the time, then brain-training may be fun, but it’s probably not necessary.”
Similarly, it’s not necessary for children or anyone in higher education since they’re getting plenty of mental stimulation already.
In fact, there’s a theory that people who challenge themselves in early life – by growing up bilingual or pursuing higher education – make themselves more resilient to dementia.
“It’s called cognitive reserve,” said Dr Walton.
“And it’s basically about how resilient your brain is. Everyone can accumulate some amount of damage to their brain, but the theory is if you’ve built up cognitive reserve, the connections in your brain are stronger, so you can tolerate more damage.”
One key takeaway is that it’s never too early to take steps to preserve your brain health.
“You can do things like travel, because when everything’s new your brain works on overdrive to process what’s happening,” said Dr Moore.
“If that isn’t possible, just being observant on your normal route to work can give your brain some variety. Even learning a new word a day can help.”
And brain training specifically? This is where things get tricky – at least one company has been hit with a hefty fine for making claims about its effectiveness that aren’t supported by evidence.
“There isn’t very good evidence that brain-training games can slow cognitive decline or prevent dementia,” said Dr Walton.
There’s a positive side, however, where one of the largest studies on brain training on 67,000 people found that those who did brain training for a couple of months reported getting on better with things like managing their finances and using public transport.
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It’s all about the challenge
All in all, the evidence suggests that mental fitness has parallels to physical fitness – find something that offers short-term benefits that you enjoy and any beneficial effects further down the line are an added bonus.
“It’s better if they challenge you,” said Dr Moore.
“If you can do them in your sleep, try something new. Mix it up. Do a crossword one day, read something complicated the next.”
An even better bang-for-your-buck option is to combine physical and mental workouts with socialising.
“There’s evidence that people who are more lonely and socially isolated are at higher risk of dementia,” said Dr Moore.
Activities like table tennis and dancing, for example, that are physical, have a social aspect and are mentally taxing, are great for your brain.
The bottom line?
Eating well and moving are your best options for your brain and body. And while the benefits of everything else are less well-defined, you should still find something that stimulates your grey matter. The goal is to find something that gives you the best chance of a high quality of life in your older years, without causing you too much pain in the short term.
Your weekly brain workout
Play puzzle rush for 5 minutes
This free chess mini game – played by beginners and grandmasters alike – offers up set-piece board positions and challenges players to find the correct move, aiming to complete as many increasingly tough problems as possible against the clock, under three-strikes-and-you’re-out conditions. Chess masters can do 50 in five minutes, but you should aim for two or three.
Learn a new word for two minutes
You don’t have to comb through the dictionary.
Merriam-Webster offers a Word of the Day podcast that includes definitions, derivations and examples of words like ‘desuetude’, ‘adscititious’ and ‘calliope’ (it’s pronounced kahLYE-oh-pee), as well as examples of these words in use and interesting trivia to accompany them. Available at Apple Podcasts.
Listen to the news in French for 4 minutes
Don’t worry if you can’t parlez at full speed – languagel earning resource Linguistica 360 provides short breakdowns of current events in slowed-down French, German, Italian or Spanish, picking out keywords to build your vocabulary as you follow along with readable text. It has weekly bulletins, but there are plenty of archived episodes on YouTube.
Train your ears for 2 minutes
Learning an instrument may seem a bit daunting, but you can improve your musical ability by listening to other people play. Toned Ear plays chords, scales or single notes and asks you to identify them, which will improve your pitch for when it’s finally time to master the clarinet.
Play some games for 10 minutes
Dr Moore’s BrainedUp offers a brain-training protocol involving games of logic, memory and shape manipulation that you can log and aim to improve on daily. Alternatively, do a crossword or tackle some sudoku.
Play some table tennis for 30 minutes
Ideally, your week’s physical activity should include a mixture of cardiovascular and resistance training, but also aim to do something that challenges your body’s coordination and proprioception (awareness of your body position in relation to your surroundings). Dancing and table tennis both fit the bill, as well as activities like yoga or judo.
Do a crossword for 30 minutes
Evidence on whether it’ll actually improve your brain’s resistance to age-related disease is scant, but it might. And sometimes you just need to have fun…