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Want to keep your brain sharp? Here are 5 things you can do | CBC Radio

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The Dose25:48How can I keep my brain sharp as I age?

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The health of our brains can change as we age. 

For some, that might look like worries about memory loss. But experts say cognitive health is about much more than forgetting someone’s name or where you put your phone. 

It also includes focus and concentration, judgment and intuition, and learning. 

As we age, we lose neurons. But as we gain experience and knowledge, we also make new ones, said neurologist Dr. Steven Laureys. 

“That’s neuroplasticity in action,” Laureys told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s The Dose. “You’re challenging what you know today and what you will be able to do tomorrow.” 

Neuroplasticity is the way the brain can change its structure over time.

There are lots of things we can do to help our brains stay sharp — including learning new things, staying social, being physically active, sleeping well, and meditating. 

How can learning something new help my brain?

It’s normal to pay less attention to certain things as we age because we’ve done them thousands of times, said Dr. Veena Dwivedi, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Brock University who researches the brain and language. 

She suggests taking a new route home from the store, for example, so your brain will have to work a little harder. 

“Make it novel so that you will pay attention,” said Dwivedi. 

Doing word games such as crosswords can help certain areas of the brain, but it’s even better to do them with friends or family. (Submitted by Anna Shechtman )

To help your brain, try learning something that is unfamiliar and challenging, said Dr. Manuel Montero-Odasso, a professor of medicine at Western University and the director of the Gait and Brain Lab. 

For example, you could learn a new language or a new musical instrument, he said.

“This kind of challenge, in the beginning, generates more communication between the neurons,” said Montero-Odasso. 

But, when starting a new activity, try not to set the bar too high, said Laureys, who is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in neuroplasticity at Laval University. 

“Sometimes we expect too much too quickly. Just enjoy the ride,” he said.

Will doing Wordle every day keep my brain healthy? 

We may think that regularly playing Wordle, crosswords, or other vocabulary puzzles will help us avoid cognitive decline. 

The evidence for that is scant, according to a systematic review published in 2021 — but that doesn’t mean they’re a waste of time. 

Puzzles work on multiple parts of the brain, said Laureys, including helping us pay attention, recognize patterns and stimulate vocabulary. 

Crosswords, he said, challenge your general knowledge and help with problem-solving. 

A group of people square dance together in a hotel ballroom.
Studies have shown that social engagement and activities are associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Word games don’t improve your memory — though they may help you improve at that particular type of game, said Montero-Odasso. 

Experts recommend you pair word games with other activities, like playing alongside friends and family. 

“Wordle is fine, but if you’re sitting by yourself [and] you don’t talk to anybody, it’s not going to help that much,” said Dwivedi. 

How do social connections affect my cognitive health? 

Creating social connections is key to brain health, experts said. 

Studies have shown that social engagement and activities are associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. 

For example, you could create a group chat or schedule a meetup around your daily Wordle, said Dwivedi. 

“So if you do the Wordle, plus you have the social [connection], and then you walk to your friend’s house to talk about it — it’s a game changer.”

A man sits cross-legged in a forest clearing with his eyes closed. A small brown and white dog sits next to him.
Laureys has been practicing meditation since 2013. He calls it ‘gymnastics for the brain.’ (Pasquale Charland)

She said any kind of social activity will help your brain, such as volunteering at the food bank or joining an artists’ group. 

What kind of physical activity will help my brain? 

Everyone knows that exercise helps your heart, but what about your brain? 

There are well-known links between cardiovascular health and brain health, experts said. 

Laureys recommends his patients get 20 minutes of aerobic exercise — a workout that causes you to sweat — three times a week. 

“It really changes the neurochemistry of the brain,” he said. 

In a study from 2023, Montero-Odasso and colleagues showed that combining aerobic-resistance exercises with cognitive training gave the best results for improving global cognition in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. 

“Your brain is an oxygen-hungry organ,” said Dr. Dwivedi, and exercise increases both oxygen and blood flow to the brain. 

“You want to keep the brain healthy, stay physically fit.”

How much does sleep matter to my brain health? 

We’re all familiar with how foggy our brains can feel after a poor night’s rest. 

WATCH How less sleep can affect your brain: 

New sleep study examines how brains function on less sleep

Over time, bad sleep can have a negative impact on brain health and puts us at risk for certain brain diseases such as dementia

A system in our brain called the glymphatic system, which was only discovered in 2012, is integral to cognitive health by helping the brain get rid of waste, said Laureys. 

“It’s a natural, efficient detox happening during deep sleep,” he said. 

If you struggle to sleep well, it’s important to figure out why and get medical help to try to sleep better, he added. 

Can meditating help my brain? 

Laureys has been meditating for just over 10 years, and prescribes meditation to his patients. 

“It’s gymnastics for the brain,” Laureys said. 

He recently published a book about how meditation helps the brain, and said there are many ways to practice it. 

“The key is paying attention to what’s happening in your head. You spend a lot of time there,” said Laureys. 

He recommends an eight-week program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which is offered in several Canadian locations as well as virtually.

Laureys said the program has been shown to help people who are at risk of cognitive decline.

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