Learning a new dance step involves exercise, socialization, and a challenge, all of which can help boost thinking skills.
Challenging your brain, staying physically active, and being socially engaged may help keep our thinking skills sharp.
It’s a new year, and a great time to try your hand at a new activity—but not just for the fun of it. “Cognitive and social engagement have been shown to be protective against cognitive decline, whereas hearing loss, depression, and social isolation are associated with cognitive decline,” says Dr. Kathryn Papp, neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
How it works
Dr. Papp says we don’t know the exact reasons why mental and social engagement may protect our thinking skills, but we do have some ideas. “Until the mid-1990s, we thought that people were born with however many brain cells they would die with. We now know that the growth of new cells—a process called neurogenesis—occurs throughout life, even in older age,” she explains.
It turns out that the human brain has a great potential for something called neuronal plasticity—that is, it’s malleable. It appears that challenging our brains—for example, by learning a new skill—leads to actual changes in the adult brain. “It may create new connections between brain cells by changing the balance of available neurotransmitters and changing how connections are made,” says Dr. Papp.
Being socially engaged may help fend off social isolation and depression, both of which have been linked with a decline in cognitive functioning later in life. Having good social supports also reduces stress, another thing that we know has a negative impact on thinking skills.
Neurogenesis is also associated with maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially getting enough sleep each night, keeping stress levels low, avoiding overeating, and the central pillar of them all: regular exercising. “Researchers have found that physical exercise leads to release of cellular growth factors that are important for neurogenesis,” says Dr. Papp.
And it’s this combination of growth factors and new brain cells—from healthy living, challenging the brain, and staying socially connected—that may wind up helping to protect the brain or keep it more resilient to changes that cause dementia.
Start your engine
What’s the easiest way to rev up your thinking skills? Look for activities that incorporate brain stimulation, physical activity, and social engagement, such as learning to play a sport or game (tennis, Ping-Pong, golf), learning a new dance step (try the cha cha, the rhumba, the merengue), taking a class on planting flowers or vegetables, or learning tai chi, which has been shown to boost thinking skills.
If physical activity isn’t possible, consider taking a class in painting (start with watercolors, then move to oils); piano, flute, or guitar; writing short stories (or your memoir); computers; flower arranging; knitting or crocheting; or a new language.
Or you can simply take part in any new activity that you find interesting, such as
volunteering at a local charity
exploring a new city
joining a book club
trying out a new restaurant or new type of food
becoming a museum docent
helping out at a school or day care
joining a collectors club (dolls, stamps, memorabilia).
Just as it’s important to stick to a medication or exercise regimen, you’ll have to stick to a pattern of learning in order to reap the benefits. So make sure the activities you choose interest you personally. “The best activities will be the ones that you find enjoyable,” says Dr. Papp.
Challenge your brain in 60 seconds or less
Use the little moments in your day to try something new and forge new brain cell connections. Take a mini challenge, such as brushing your teeth with the hand you don’t usually use, taking a different route to work or the store, eating a bite or two of dinner with your eyes closed, listening to a new kind of music, observing your breath for 60 seconds, doing 60 seconds of jumping jacks (or some other physical activity), sitting in a different spot in your house or at a favorite restaurant, or trying to do any one new thing each day.
“I think it is all about new experiences, which require the brain to do some work because it’s encountering something it hasn’t experienced be-fore. Turning off automatic pilot for a moment and being mindful and aware of what we are experiencing can get us out of well-trodden grooves and create an opportunity for a new experience,” says Dr. Kathryn Papp, neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.