We’ve all experienced moments that prompt us to question our brain health: blanking on words, habitually misplacing keys or earbuds, or relying heavily on apps like Find My iPhone. Although these aren’t necessarily indicators of mental decline, using strategies to train and maintain your brain won’t hurt and could help keep your mind sharp.

Memory aids: smart not scary

“A lot of times people come in concerned because they have to constantly write things down or look at their calendars,” says Merin Campbell, PsyD, lead psychologist at the Cooper Neurological Institute. “I often hear, ‘I’m just lost without my phone.’”

Merin Campbell, PsyD

While it’s a common concern to mistake the use of memory aids as a sign of slipping cognitive function, leaning on your smartphone and other helpful tools isn’t a red flag for your brain’s health, says Campbell. It’s more a sign of our digitally dominated and information-heavy times. 

“We are inundated with information in a way that we never have been before,” she says. “We’re constantly on call, accessible via smartphones and smartwatches, responding to emails. Our attentional resources are spread thinner than they ever have been before.”

Given these everyday realities, it’s not only okay but smart to use aids to manage information overload, Campbell says. “Use those organizational strategies, lean on them,” she advises. These tools are not red flags of cognitive issues but rather sensible strategies for effectively managing attention and mental resources in our busy lives, she adds.

B Vitamins for brain health

In the supplement world, many products make promises of brain health benefits, though often, there’s scant conclusive research backing these claims. However, there’s clarity on one front: a lack of B vitamins, especially B12, can lead to sharp cognitive declines, says Donna Raziano, MD, of Inspira Health’s LIFE program. Thankfully, it’s a condition that can be reversed.

When patients show signs that mimic dementia, Raziano begins her detective work with a medical check-up, delving into blood work results. It’s not unusual to discover that the real culprits behind the cognitive issues are deficiencies in hormones or vitamins. “I routinely check thyroid and B12 levels in patients presenting cognitive concerns because deficiencies in these areas can present similarly to dementia,” she says.

Addressing a B12 deficiency can lead to significant improvements in cognitive functions, helping to clear up confusion while boosting memory and focus. When it comes to preventing cognitive decline, the role of B vitamins, including B12, is well-established in supporting neurological function.

To prevent vitamin B deficiencies, B-complex vitamins can be helpful. These supplements usually pack a range of Bs – there are 8 different varieties, all which play a role to support brain health. Alternatively, most daily multivitamins also provide the recommended amounts of these essential B vitamins. It’s worth noting that B12 is found solely in animal products, making supplements a necessary addition for vegetarians and vegans. Routine blood work can help ensure there are no deficiencies, Raziano adds.

Brain games: more than just play

From pen-and-paper games like Sudoku and crossword puzzles to digital challenges found in Wordle and Lumosity, a huge array of brain games is at our fingertips, each designed to flex different mental muscles. Sudoku, for instance, sharpens short-term memory and concentration, while crosswords delve into verbal language and pull from a variety of knowledge areas.

Donna Raziano, MD

There’s research showing that the more you play and the better you get at a specific game, it’s unlikely there is any transfer to life skills, says Campbell. “While engaging in these games, a user might improve at the specific tasks within the game, but the skill enhancement doesn’t necessarily translate to other cognitive functions,” she says. 

Mastering a memory game on Lumosity, for instance, won’t ensure you’ll remember where you last put your phone.

However, for those who find joy and challenge in brain games, there’s no need to stop. “If you love your Lumosity, feel encouraged to continue. If it seems beneficial and increases your cognitive stimulation, why not?” says Campbell. 

For those less enthused by technology or who simply don’t find these games appealing, there’s a near limitless number of alternative activities to engage in, says Sridhara Yaddanapudi, MD, Medical Director of Neurology for Jefferson – East Region Primary & Specialty Care in New Jersey. Engaging hobbies, whether it’s cooking, esports, reading, gardening, knitting or any other pastime that sparks joy, can be equally effective in keeping your mind sharp and agile. The key is to find and engage in activities that you believe support and stimulate your cognitive functions, whether they’re digital or not.

“There’s no downside to any activity that keeps people active,” says Yaddanapudi, noting a positive correlation between engaging in intellectually stimulating activities – playing games, reading, crafting – and a significant decrease (30 to 50 percent) in the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.

“The things you do daily that may seem ordinary – like crossword puzzles or reading for pleasure – may actually be building up cognitive reserves,” Yaddanapudi adds. “So when people who incorporate intellectually stimulating activities in their lives do experience a decline, they can compensate for longer before it starts affecting their daily life.” 

Although Yaddanapudi does not consider watching TV a brain healthy pastime, he makes an exception for trivia shows like “Jeopardy!” Or Netflix’s new “Triviaverse.” 

“Most TV watching is passive absorption,” he says. “It actually will not improve your brain.”

Be Social (but not on Zoom)

One of the most overlooked ways to keep the brain healthy is by being surrounded by loving friends, family and community, says Yaddanapudi.

Sridhara Yaddanapudi, MD

“It doesn’t get a lot of press but in Blue Zones – which are regions in the world where people tend to live longer, healthier lives – the commonality is that people have lots of social relationships. Getting out in the community, interacting with other people keeps the mind sharp.”

In essence, he says, being with other people isn’t simply about combating loneliness – although that is an important aspect – it’s an important strategy for maintaining cognitive health. 

That said, not all socialization is the same. While a Zoom gathering could be considered social and meets most definitions of connection, it won’t necessarily have the same benefits as activities that don’t involve electronic devices, says Raziano. 

“Socialization as a preventative measure means activities that get you outside of the house,” says Raziano, noting that going to religious services and events as opposed to Zooming in, seeing live arts and getting into nature, are all ways of keeping the brain agile and responsive. 

“The thing about being in person is that you’re required to be using all your senses,” she says. “When you’re in church, as opposed to zooming, you’re seeing it, hearing it, you’re taking in the smells, interacting with people. It’s the whole experience.”   

November 2023
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