We normally associate the term cognitive development with babies and children. While many adults do not think of developing themselves cognitively, they should do so, particularly since studies show that reduced cognitive function can age us prematurely and reduce life expectancy. It is well known in the medical community that people who have advanced stages of Alzheimer's or dementia do not live as long as those free from these conditions.
You can be many years younger than your chronological age by making certain lifestyle choices, including those that tax or challenge the brain. Research over the past 20 years has shown that certain regions of the adult brain can generate new neurons and new synapses. (Here's one recent study, for example.) In essence, whenever we learn something new, engage in new activities, or even ponder a new concept, the brain will rewire itself in response to these activities. Just like babies, adults can keep growing their brain and protect cognitive functioning as they age.
There are many positive ways to build better cognition and to lessen the chances of developing diminished cognitive ability, dementia, or Alzheimer's later on in life, all of which make us act old and feel old. Here are ten of them.
Exercise to improve cognitive function.
Exercise increases blood flow to the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory. One recent study found that the loss of tissue density in the brain was less in those who were aerobically fit, which is another way of saying fit people have better cognitive functioning. Many other studies show that exercise increases one's ability to learn, handle stressful situations, make clear decisions and recall facts and memories.
Watch TV and read "actively."
The difference between watching "The Bachelorette" and watching an educational science show is how active your brain has to be. Watching TV is cognitively enriching when it takes effort to understand what you're watching, or sparks questions, ideas or "aha" moments. The same is true for reading. A celebrity tabloid magazine takes less brain power to flip through than, say, a magazine such as Smithsonian. Develop new connections in your brain by reading something that's instructive instead of merely entertaining. After reading or watching TV, make yourself recall what you just learned. This exercise boosts retention.
Take up a new hobby.
Increase cognitive enrichment by taking on a new active pursuit that requires learning, as opposed to merely attending a baseball game or concert. Some examples include: gardening, antiquing, taking up an instrument, raising chickens, learning a foreign language or selling items on the Internet. Read books, talk to experts, take classes, attend conferences or join organizations related to your hobby. All of this learning activity develops new connections between neurons, which helps offset cell loss due to aging or disease.
Solve all types of puzzles.
Puzzles are an outstanding way to build new connections in the brain. There are many types of puzzles other than crosswords. These include acrostics, cryptograms, syllacrostics and many other word-oriented brain teasers. Some brain teasers don't involve words at all, such as Sudoku. It's particularly good for your brain to seek out a variety. Or start with one type, and as you get better, switch to another type of puzzle. Your brain will be challenged anew with each particular type of puzzle. Switching from a puzzle that's easy to a more difficult or unfamiliar type stimulates new brain activity, or learning, as your brain now has to generate new memories in order to master the new challenge.
Play board games and card games.
Games that involve strategy are excellent for the brain, especially those that involve puzzle solving or new learning of some sort, such as Scrabble, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- all available in digital form as well. Chess and checkers are excellent games because almost every game is unique, requiring a different set of strategies each time. Card games can similarly help preserve cognitive functioning because the player continues to perfect the most effective strategies according to the opponent's playing style. You can also play card games with a computer!
Visit museums, zoos, and historical sites.
There are many specialty museums as well as zoos and historical sites that will help you build better cognition. To get the most out of the visit from a cognitive standpoint, don't be a passive visitor. Read the signage next to the exhibits, try to repeat the key information to yourself and then do it again once or twice during or after your visit. Not only will you retain what the exhibits were about, but with some occasional recall attempts, you increase the odds of being able to recall the information months or even years later.
Become a student again.
Many continuing education courses are available that do not require being in a degree program -- you merely sign up for one or two courses whenever you feel like it. Relatively inexpensive courses are available through community colleges. As a student, you will get many chances to learn new things, and most instructors will give you tests that will force you to recall the information learned. Nondegree classes are offered in many areas, from technical subjects to local community history, public speaking, relationships, poetry and other friendly topics.
Workshops, conferences, and other gatherings where professionals in their field share their knowledge offer another way to build cognitive function through active learning. While these are commonly offered in a person's profession, you may find many others connected with hobbies and personal interests. One that came across my desk recently, for example, was a workshop on how to trace your family's ancestry. Another was amateur backyard astronomy.
People with high amounts of stress are more likely to suffer from cognitive problems than those who are free of stress. While medications can reduce the symptoms of stress, they do not cure the problem or help you understand the root cause of the stress, which is key. Since many meds require ever-increasing dosages to be effective, and many have side-effects, it is important to consider reducing stress in more natural ways, including exercise, naps, individual counseling, meditation, relaxing hobbies, spiritual growth and other means.
Depressed individuals are more likely to suffer from cognitive problems later in life than those who are free of depression. As with stress, many people who are depressed merely run to their family doctor and say, "Can you give me something for being depressed?" and walk away with a prescription. No attempt is made to find out what is causing the depression in the first place, let alone cure it. As with stress, there are ways to bring about a long-lasting solution to depression besides medication, including individual counseling, exercise, spiritual growth, career rejuvenation, goal setting, and other techniques.
Dennis Kravetz is a psychologist, physical fitness buff, business consultant, and writer whose lifelong passion has been to study and research how to extend the human lifespan and improve the quality of one's life with a healthy lifestyle. He's the author of eight books, most recently A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Live Long, Live Healthy (KAP Books, 2013). Learn more at www.longlife4me.com.