Whether it's eating a balanced diet or working out, many people spend a considerable amount of time and money keeping fit. It's about more than just the physical, though. Looking for ways to maintain and improve mental fitness -- skills such as memory, thinking speed, problem solving, and focus -- has also become a global preoccupation and spawned a huge industry. There are, however, ways to sharpen the mind that don’t require big cash outlays.
Food choices can affect energy levels and health, but also how we think. A study at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital found that women with diets high in saturated fat did worse on memory and thinking tasks than women with leaner diets. The advice: Consume only moderate amounts of foods high in saturated fat, such as cheese, pizza, and flour-based desserts such as cakes, cookies, doughnuts, and pies.
It's never too late to learn something new. In one study of the elderly, bilingual participants experienced the onset of Alzheimer's a few years later than participants who used only one language, and researchers concluded that bilingualism somehow delayed development of the disease. Consider picking up a basic language book or trying other methods of learning a foreign tongue.
If learning a language seems daunting, find smaller ways to keep the brain active. Consider daily crossword puzzles, math problems, hidden-object games, or even reading. In one study in Japan, senior citizens ages 70 to 86 were asked to complete basic reading and arithmetic exercises every day; a retest six months later showed that the exercises had "beneficial effects of maintaining and improving cognitive functions."
Exercise works wonders physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. One study has linked cardiovascular exercise to an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory, which typically shrinks late in life. Another study found that older adults doing more aerobic activity demonstrated better cognitive performance. An expensive gym membership isn't necessary -- just put on sneakers and go for a brisk walk around the block. MRI scans show increased brain activity after a 20-minute walk.
A Mediterranean diet is recommended to stave off memory loss. It's high in healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which are connected to lower rates of memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer's. Consider adding more fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, and whole grains to your diet, as well as fish, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Perhaps people constantly misplacing their belongings or experiencing other brain blips should try snacking on a handful of berries. Dark berries such as blueberries, cherries, and blackberries can improve memory in older adults. Berries contain anthocyanins, which are anti-inflammatory plant pigments high in antioxidants. In one study, older adults who drank wild blueberry juice every day for 12 weeks showed improved memory function.
Hours of video games may seem like a waste of time, but game play can train and hone basic mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, and action games with real-time group play particularly have been linked to improved brain function. One study found that participants who played for a half-hour every day for two months showed an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus and capacity for navigation, fine motor skills, and memory. Psychology Today has a rundown of the ways video games might be good for the brain.
Of course there's an app for brain training -- plenty of them. Although they might work in theory, the Federal Trade Commission warns that studies fail to show reliable results in the real world. Still, it can't hurt. The curious can start with the free version of an app such as Cognito, Elevate, Fit Brains Trainer, Lumosity, or Peak and decide for themselves.
Meditation has been associated with improved focus, concentration, and a feeling of well-being. Research has also linked the practice to increased growth of gray matter in certain brain areas specifically related to problem-solving, learning, and memory, and suggested it may improve health. Curious about meditation? Search for online meditation guides on YouTube and elsewhere, and check out the variety of mobile meditation apps. You can also read what one of Cheapism’s writers discovered after she began meditating.
Lifting weights increases bone density, builds muscles that speed up metabolism, and can even decrease blood pressure. It's also good for the brain: A 2010 study documented more neuron creation in the hippocampus when rats were carrying a heavy load while running on a wheel, and a 2015 study of women between 65 and 75 showed that weightlifting slowed age-related changes in the brain that impair cognitive ability.
Social relationships may just be as important as a balanced diet and exercise. One study analyzed a sample of adults 50 and older and found that participants with a lot of friends and social ties had slower memory decline than the lonely and disengaged. The best form of brain "exercise" may be social interactions. Building and maintaining an active social life is no easy feat, but according to this study, social networks are vital to delaying memory decline.
People fall into routines -- the commute to work, weekly errands, even where they go on the weekends -- but with research showing that new experiences generate brain activity and new neural connections, it's best to break a habit every so often and treat the brain to new stimuli. Try a different route home, volunteer somewhere, research new recipes, or follow a fitness guru for new gym routines and to stay motivated.