As memory problems are increasingly common amongst the aging population, more experts are offering tips to keep our mental faculties sharp. Some of these "brain games" are just that — games to keep synapse connections strong and our minds active. Studies have shown, however, that engaging in certain activities, getting a pet, or increasing social activity can also boost mental acuity. We've talked to experts and outlined a variety of these tips on how to boost your cognitive retention and to also help those with conditions such as Alzheimer's.
learn a new language
Researchers at Penn State discovered that learning a new language changes our brains. It helps form new neural networks, strengthening brain function. Ping Li, a professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology, says, "The more you use specific areas of the brain, the more it grows and gets stronger." Li likens the development to working out. These anatomical changes provide encouraging news for the elderly and provide hope for more graceful aging.
the tray game for seniors
This is a fun activity to boost memory and help keep the brain sharp. It involves a caregiver or friend's help. Simply have a friend put some random items on a tray. Allow yourself a quick peek at the tray, then cover it up. Try to remember all the items on the tray. If you can't manage a tray, this also works well with a photo on a smartphone or computer. This simple exercise can boost memory and help bolster confidence in someone experiencing memory issues.
take a crack at a puzzle
Jigsaw puzzles are another tool for fighting short-term memory loss. Working a puzzle can help develop abilities to reason, analyze, sequence, deduce, and solve problems. Bruce Barnet, a certified caregiver and expert with the Alzheimer's Store, says, "Puzzles encompasses hand/eye coordination, dexterity, reasoning and colors and can keep a person's mind sharp." Completing a puzzle can give seniors a sense of accomplishment and control. Additionally, puzzles also offer a way for caregivers to communicate and connect to their patients.
Engaging with others is another way to keep mentally sharp and fit. In fact, there has been accumulating evidence that participating in activities that make you think hard and learn new things is good for your brain health. People with such active, engaged lifestyles tend to do better on memory and other cognitive tests than people who are less engaged.
dolls for dementia
While the use of doll therapy for Alzheimer's patients hasn't been proven to increase memory, it has increased social interaction amongst patients and caregivers — thereby facilitating recall as it has been proven that social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning. A recent study that involved providing dolls to patients with Alzheimer's seemed to increase the patient's connection to others in their communities. Congregating and bonding over the dolls created more interaction with family members. Some 93 percent of staff at care facilities stated that the dolls "helped with communicating with the residents," according to a different study from 2014.
learn a new instrument
Taking up a new instrument is great for improving your memory skills. It's been found to strengthen bonds with other people, increase blood flow to the brain, help the brain recover for stroke patients, reduce stress and depression, and help the elderly multitask. Simon Landry, a researcher in biomedical sciences and audiology at University of Montreal, says, "As people get older, we know their reaction times get slower. So if we know that playing a musical instrument increases reaction times, then maybe playing an instrument will be helpful for them."
get a pet
Animals can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and have a calming effect. New York-based psychologist Penny B. Donnenfeld has witnessed animals' ability to prompt better memory recall in their elderly owners. "I've seen those with memory loss interact with an animal and regain access to memories from long ago," she explains. "Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than their physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging."
Staying cognitively active through mentally stimulating activities such as playing games like chess has been linked to keeping the mind sharp. Findings from long-term observational studies — in which researchers observed behavior but did not influence or change it — also suggest that informal cognitively stimulating activities, such as reading or playing games, may lower risk of Alzheimer's-related cognitive impairment and dementia. For example, a study of nearly 2,000 cognitively normal adults 70 and older found that participating in games, crafts, computer use, and social activities for about four years was associated with a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.
engage in social media
Andy Asher, the editor-in-chief of Bloomer Boomer, an online publication geared toward seniors, suggests simply engaging in social media can be a boost to memory issues. He says, "There are two simple daily lifestyle strategies that work really well to reduce memory loss and help when we start becoming forgetful. Our brain is like a muscle that improves the more we use it. Keep that muscle toned by finding a detailed activity you like doing everyday. Crosswords are popular and in the era of computers, something as simple as engaging on social media is a great way to keep the mind fit."
hang a whiteboard
Asher of Bloomer Boomer also likes to keep space tidy because, he says, "It's difficult to misplace things when we keep our living space neat and organized. So to combat forgetfulness that comes with age, I really like hanging a whiteboard in the kitchen to write reminders." This visual variation on a to-do list is a great way to commit items to short-term memory.
actions speak faster than words
It's been theorized that physical activity helps to increase memory. Indeed, long-term effects of exercise on memory have been shown to be helpful in increasing neural connections. And now it's been found that gesturing can also help with cognitive recall, enhancing learning and memory. The bottom line, gesticulate while you're talking in order to help you and others recall what you're saying.