Not so long ago, we thought our brains had reached their peak by the time we hit adulthood and everything was simply downhill from there. But now we know that’s not true – scientists have identified a process dubbed “neuroplasticity”, which acknowledges our brains are capable of growing and making new connections as we age.
Giving our brains a regular mental workout can reduce the risk of mild cognitive decline – the precursor to dementia – by as much as 40%, says Dr Nicole Kochan, a clinical neuro-psychologist and researcher with the University of New South Wales’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing. And a recent study conducted by the Mayo Clinic in the US confirmed that elderly people who’d kept up a hobby – such as arts and crafts, social activities or computer use – since middle age were less likely to be affected by dementia.
It’s due to a phenomenon called “cognitive reserve” – or the mind’s resistance to damage of the brain. When we start developing dementia – usually several decades before we notice symptoms – certain regions of the brain like the hippocampus start to shrink. However, complex activities boost new brain cells (grey matter) and improve the connections between them (white matter), which means less atrophy and shrinkage.
We also know that what’s good for the body is good for the brain, says Suha Ali, risk reduction manager at Alzheimer’s Australia. So there’s another reason to exercise regularly. And being social gives our brains a boost too: spending time with others and having fun can contribute to brain reserve.
“Try to combine all three,” says Ali, and the effects will multiply.
Here then, are some hobbies shown by science to boost the health of your brain – with extra tips to make them even more powerful, courtesy of brain training programme BrainHQ.
Baduk, an ancient Korean board game also known as “Go”, is like a brain super food. One study used imaging to show that the brains of Baduk players had superior connectivity in the frontal lobe, the limbic system, and the subcortex of the brain, meaning players’ memory, concentration and problem-solving abilities were all enhanced.
In fact, all sorts of card and board games are great for your brain. The complexity of the game requires you to exercise your strategising, logic, initiative, memory and mathematics abilities, while the social aspect gives an added boost to brain health. The Paquid study, which followed 3777 French adults, looked at the links between board games and cognitive function and found people who played regularly had a 15% lower risk of developing dementia than non-players, even 20 years later.
Board games boost cognitive reserve because you have to adapt depending on whether you’re winning or losing, and develop new strategies for next time.
Alternatives: Chess and card games like pinochle, hearts, cribbage and bridge can also stimulate your brain.
Added boost: Mentally challenge yourself to remember everyone’s name and the cards they’re holding.
Maintain a healthy heart, watch your weight and don’t smoke.
Take up juggling
Any activity that helps improve your dexterity and hand-eye coordination is good for your brain. With juggling, you can challenge yourself by adding an extra ball as your skill level improves.
One study scanned the brains of people who learned to juggle for 30 minutes a day over a six-week period. At the end of the study, participants had improved the white matter of the brain. The researchers thought that this was partly because jugglers had better spatial awareness and had learnt to mentally rotate objects.
Juggling is also a physical activity you can do even if you’re not very mobile, and displaying your new-found skills to others builds in social engagement.
Alternatives: Other sensory-guided movement activities that improve hand-eye coordination and mental rotation dexterity include ping pong, wrestling and dance.
Added boost: Try to juggle faster or longer. Change what you do each time, forcing your brain to adapt to the new challenge.
Join a book or movie club
Find a hobby that you enjoy – that way you’re more likely to keep going. Most of us enjoy a good book or a movie, but sharing the experience with others will further boost your brain.
“If you have someone to sit down and discuss it with, your memories become stronger, you talk about the storyline and people bring in their shared experiences,” says Kochan. In a larger group, that effect will increase.
A recent study found that reading a novel improves brain function by enhancing connectivity across the left temporal cortex, associated with language comprehension, and also the central sulcus, the area of the brain associated with sensations and movement. The researchers suggested this latter may come from the reader literally putting themselves into the body of the book’s protagonist – enhancing our senses of empathy and compassion.
Alternatives: Visits to an art gallery, a museum, the theatre or a concert will all stimulate the brain.
Added boost: Be mindful. Try to understand the details of how the film or music is arranged, analyse the dialogue, or think deeply about the plot.
Follow a diet rich in fish, vegetables, olive oil and fruit.
Go for a nature walk
Physical activity can boost the hippocampus, the memory coordination centre of the brain which is the first area affected by dementia. Try for at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, and if you can build that into a social activity, so much the better.
Stanford University researchers found that walking is a particularly good way of boosting creativity. Study participants were measured before and after a walk on a treadmill, and their scores for “creative divergent thinking” (generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions) and “convergent thinking” (giving the correct answer without thinking about it) were both better than those who remained seated in a chair. “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity,” the study authors said.
Walking in the midst of nature seems to be especially good for the brain. One study found the intriguing stimuli in nature restored and replenished people’s ability to pay attention, whereas urban environments were not as restorative because the stimulation was too dramatic (for example, when you have to react to avoid being hit by a car).
Alternatives: Lawn bowls, yoga and tai chi or other forms of gentle exercise.
Added boost: During a walk, try to commit small details of the landscape to memory. When you get home, try to reconstruct the walk in as much detail as possible.
Play a videogame
Do computer games actually improve brain function or just make you better at playing computer games? Now, there’s evidence that they really do help your brain.
When you play a video game, you have to think quickly and hold multiple pieces of information in your mind. Recent research shows long-lasting benefits to basic mental processes such as perception, attention, memory and decision making.
One study showed that it wasn’t just the brains of elderly gamers that improved, but their self-esteem and quality of life was also better.
The key thing is that video games are interactive – you adapt yourself to the game, which in turn adapts to you. There are millions of games to choose from and you can either play individually or against others online.
Video game suggestions: Brain Age and Super Mario on Wii, or NeuroRacer and Portal 2 on PlayStation.
Added boost: Mix it up. Play anything from shoot ’em up video games to brain-training quizzes.
Avoid brain injury and seek early help for depression.
The ancient art of paper folding boosts hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and mental concentration. Your brain is challenged as you follow the instructions and the tactile, motor and visual areas are stimulated as you focus and plan your 3D creation.
Generally, any activity that uses creativity draws on executive function, says Dr Kochan. “You are adapting your work, you are making plans and you are drawing on higher level functions,” she says.
Crafting also helps you relax, almost as powerfully as meditation, and is associated with slower cognitive decline.
Alternatives: Sewing, quilting, knitting new patterns, painting, model making, drawing and sculpting.
Added boost: Find challenging projects or designs or try something new like adult colouring-in.
Join a dance class
A study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found regular dancing contributed to a 76% reduction in the risk of developing dementia – greater than for any other hobby.
Any social activity that requires coordination, learning, motor sequencing, concentration and physical exercise is good for the brain.
Alternative activities: Also try acting, aerobics or physical theatre, or learn to play a musical instrument.
Added boost: Keep your motivation up by joining a dance club and turning it into a social activity.
Go on a trip
New experiences and environments challenge the brain, building resilience and cognitive reserve. Travelling offers socialisation, fulfilment, and improves quality of life – and when you’re on the road you’re also more likely to be physically active, too.
Alternatives: Do a short course in woodwork or cooking, join a club or volunteer for charity.
Added boost: Sit somewhere unfamiliar and concentrate on everything you can see without moving your eyes, then write down everything you can remember.