Columns | Sauk Valley News

Beyond Trim: How to train our brains

When is the last time you attempted to learn something new?

When I was in high school, my dad once told me, “Never stop using your brain”. It sounds like obvious advice, but he may have been onto something.

For many of us, our learning curve drops off sharply after we finish school and take our first job.

That could spell trouble as we age, because when it comes to brain health, “use it or lose it” is a real concern.

If we don’t continually challenge our brains, our thinking and memory skills can decline.

According to researchers at the Harvard-affiliated Institute of Aging Research, your brain retains the ability to learn and grow as you age, but you must train it to do so.

Finding new activities that force you to think, learn, and practice can help keep your brain healthy and avoid the cognitive decline that can come with aging.

How do we train our brains?

Regular physical exercise is one way. Physical activity improves blood flow and circulation, but your brain also responds to the mental aspect of the activity.

The challenge of learning a new sport or improving your performance in a favorite activity keeps your brain engaged because it requires memory, problem-solving, concentration, and attention to detail.

Brain training activities don’t need to be exercise-related. Creative outlets like arts and crafts, learning an instrument, writing, and learning a language can also improve cognitive function.

Research has found that these activities affect older adults’ mental skills and improve aspects of memory like recalling instructions and processing speed.

It’s back to school time, so this might be a great time for you to consider sending your brain back to school as well.

Pick a new activity to try, sign up for a class if you can find one, and make time to practice your new interest.

Choose something that’s challenging to you and a bit complex so that your brain can use its problem-solving and creative thinking skills.

Remember to address behaviors that can overly strain your brain.

Too much sitting, lack of meaningful social contact, sleeping poorly, and failure to address chronic stress can contribute to poor brain health.

Other health issues like high blood pressure, overuse of alcohol, hearing loss, and excessive weight can also affect cognitive function.

  • Sherry DeWalt is the healthy lifestyles coordinator for the CGH Health Foundation in Sterling.