What’s Better for the Aging Brain – Brain Games or the Game of Life?
Like many women over 60, one of my biggest goals is to keep my brain in great shape so that I can enjoy everything that life offers in the decades to come. While I occasionally do something stupid, like leave my keys in the freezer, for the most part, I think that I’m doing a pretty good job. I get plenty of exercise, write for several hours a day and even try to keep up on the latest research on the aging brain.
Along these lines, one of the most popular trends in brain health over the last decade has been the explosive growth of the brain games industry. The genre was popularized by titles such as Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and has reached the mainstream through sites like Lumosity.com and BrainHQ.
Do Brain Games Really Help the Aging Brain?
There’s a problem though. Not all scientists agree that brain games actually help to keep our minds healthy as we age. In fact, according to a recent letter by 70 neuroscientists, there is little evidence that brain games do much other than teach us how to perform specific tasks better. In other words, remembering which buckets a series of frogs are hidden under may not help you to improve your memory, but, it may help you to… well… get better at remembering where frogs are hidden.
Like with so many aspects of health after 60, it’s all quite confusing. One group of scientists tells us that one thing is good for us. Then, a week later, another group tells us that the opposite is true. Fortunately, even if brain games are not effective, there are still plenty of things that we can do to keep our brain healthy. Instead of playing brain games, we can learn to play the game of life.
Here are 5 things that most scientists agree will help to keep your brain healthy.
Exercise – Pump Your Muscles and Your Neurons
If there is one thing that neuroscientists agree on about brain fitness, it’s this – physical exercise is an excellent way to keep your brain healthy. If you think about it, this makes total sense. After all, your body and brain are not separate; they are a part of a single organism – you!
When you exercise, you are quite literally pumping your neurons while you build your muscles. So, rather than sitting at your computer, playing brain games, why not spend the same time walking in a local park or doing gentle yoga? Even better, why not combine your morning walk with learning a new language or reading an audiobook? There are plenty of options available at Audible.com.
Social Activity – Build Social Connections and Neural Connections
Humans are social creatures and, when we feel lonely, our brains suffer in more ways than one. First, the stress that comes with social isolation impacts our brains directly. Second, and perhaps most importantly, a lack of social activity prevents us from taking positive steps towards living a full and active life.
I recently asked the women in the Sixty and Me community to complete a short survey on the topic of loneliness. I was surprised and saddened by the results. Fully 75% of the women in our community said that they felt lonely and 81% said that they sometimes feel like they have no-one to talk to.
Once again, perhaps part of the solution is to abandon addictive online activities like playing brain games and checking Facebook and get out into the world instead. I can almost guarantee that taking a dance class, joining a tennis club or learning to cook in the company of others will do more for your brain than trying to count the number of asteroids in an online game.
Novelty – Give Your Brain Something New to Think About
There is one thing that proponents and critics of brain games can agree on; when it comes to the aging brain the rule of “use or lose it” applies. No one is questioning the value of mental exercise. The only question is what kind of exercise works best.
One of the criticisms of brain games is that they teach you to perform specific tasks. The world, on the other hand, is not predictable. For example, when we take a class on how to make sushi, we are not just learning how to cut fish. We are also learning how to navigate to a new location, interact with strangers and follow ambiguous instructions.
What have you always been interested in learning? Could you take a class at your local community college? Or, perhaps you have a friend who would be interested in teaching you a skill that they already know? If you want to keep your brain healthy as you age, get out there and experience everything that the world has to offer. Life after 60 is your time. Get out there and pursue your dreams with passion and vigor. Your brain will thank you for the effort.
Nutrition – Get Your Body and Your Brain the Nutrition it Needs
I hesitated to add this section because the topic of brain supplements is almost as much of a minefield as the topic of brain games. So, to be clear, when I talk about giving your brain the right nutrition after 60, I am not talking about taking omega-3 or ginkgo biloba. The jury is still out on how much we really need these supplements.
However, while supplementation is still an open question, there is no denying that eating a balanced diet, rich in vegetables, legumes and protein is good for you. One fascinating area of research is whether our carb-rich diets are actually harming our brains as we age. I’m not going to take a position on this, but, if you are interested in this topic, I highly encourage you to read Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers, by David Perlmutter. You may never look at your morning toast the same way ever again.
Nostalgia – Give Your Brain a Reason to Remember
I’ll be honest here and say that I’m not aware of any specific research on this topic. However, during my conversation with neuroscientist and author of Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina, he mentioned the fascinating possibility that nostalgia might help us to keep our brain’s healthy.
The idea here is that engaging with music, images and objects that remind us of the past can help to keep the connections in our brains healthy. So, why not spend a few minutes every day listening to a song that evokes strong memories? At best, you will be helping to keep your brain healthy and, at worst, you will have an opportunity to reconnect with the memories that defined your life. Either way, your life will be enriched if you embrace the power of nostalgia!
Playing brain games may be a great way to have a little fun, but, if you want to keep your brain healthy, playing the game of life may be more effective. So, let’s get out there and give our bodies and brains the exercise they needs. Let’s build social connections and neural connections at the same time. Let’s embrace new experiences. Let’s eat right. And, let’s embrace the power of nostalgia to keep our brains healthy as we age.
Are you a fan of brain games? What do you think is more effective – playing brain games or focusing on the game of life? Or, do you perhaps think that the two approaches are complementary? Please add your thoughts in the comments section below.