“The brain loves novelty – not to an overwhelming, stressful level, but to a stimulating level. It’s vital to our survival that our brain keeps learning and adapts.” – Dr Nicola Gates.
As we age, a certain degree of cognitive change – memory problems, a loss of sharpness – is natural. But mental decline is not a foregone conclusion, and exercising our brain is as important as focusing on our physical health and fitness.
We asked clinical neuropsychologist Dr Nicola Gates – author of A Brain for Life – and Australian Unity’s Chief Medical Adviser Nancy Huang to help explain grey matter in black and white: how the brain changes, why mental activity and stimulation is vital to our health and wellbeing, and what we can do to promote mental activity and safeguard our brain’s health as we get older.
How the brain changes as we age
“Our brain continues to change and develop through our whole lifespan,” explains Nancy.
“Some parts of our brain do shrink and some functions can slow with age, such as encoding new information, memory and the speed in which we retrieve information. However, we also know new connections in our brain can be formed throughout our lifespan. Mental decline is not an inevitable downward spiral with age.
“While we know age is the single biggest risk factor for brain diseases, such as dementia, and other conditions that can contribute to reduced brain function, including diabetes and heart disease, ensuring we maintain mental activity in our older years has a positive effect on our brain function.”
The traditional life changes we go through when we get older can contribute to a decrease in mental activity and subsequent loss of cognitive function as much as the natural processes of ageing.
It’s important to recognise the potential pitfalls of those later-in-life transitions and consciously work to counteract their effects.
“When we get older, our world contracts – particularly when we leave the workforce,” says Nicola.
“People’s world of experiences becomes contracted. They go to the same shops, buy the same groceries, talk to the same friends. It’s not stimulating for the brain. Early retirement can be problematic and increase the risk of dementia because people can neglect mental activity and social engagement.
“The brain loves novelty – not to an overwhelming, stressful level, but to a stimulating level. It’s vital to our survival that our brain keeps learning and adapts. Stimulation increases brain growth and cognitive development. It’s well understood that mental activity, including education and occupational demand, is associated with the decline in dementia.”
In its simplest application, neuroplasticity is a term that describes the brain’s capacity to change.
“Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain structure and way it’s organised to continue to change, grow and be shaped by our experiences, thinking patterns, habits and behaviours,” says Nancy.
“In life, if we have a new thought or experience, or learn a new skill or behaviour, we create a new neural pathway. By repeating that new neural pathway, it grows stronger and deeper.”
Neuroplasticity also helps explain the process of mental decline if we reduce, or neglect, our mental activity.
“Across the lifespan, the brain has the capacity to learn and acquire new information. New learning inherently involves neuroplastic change,” Nicola elaborates.
“While neuroplasticity can be appropriated with positive changes such as stimulation and learning, lack of activity causes neuroplastic change in the opposite direction. For example, when people go on holiday or long sabbatical leave, they come back to their job and everything is slower and more effortful – that’s an example of neuroplasticity.”
Stimulating your brain for mental health and wellbeing
While mental activity is essential to help prevent the onset of conditions such as dementia, it’s also central to good mental health and overall wellbeing.
Stimulating our brain and safeguarding cognitive function helps us to maintain good social connections and relationships with loved ones; improves memory, decision-making, concentration and creativity; and aids confidence and happiness.
“There’s a clear relationship between mental activity and mental health and wellness,” says Nancy.
“By maintaining mental activity, we retain our cognitive capacity into older age. That will give us a sense of wellbeing by promoting our self-esteem. We’ll feel good about ourselves if we can retain our mental capacity, our feeling of mastery – doing things and doing them well.
“There can be a vicious spiral of a lack of mental activity leading to a mental decline. Mental decline can then exacerbate, or contribute to, feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.”
Nicola also warns that neuroplasticity from positive mental activity and stimulation can’t occur in a vacuum.
“You can engage and exercise your brain, but if you’re not supporting the health of the brain by eating well, reducing stress, sleeping well and keeping physically active, or if you’re having too much alcohol, it’s going to undermine your brain’s health and cognitive capacity,” says Nicola.
Strategies and pursuits to promote mental activity
There are countless activities, games, hobbies, courses and pastimes that can encourage mental activity.
From doing puzzles, Scrabble, sudoku or crosswords to playing cards, using memory-based apps and games, learning an instrument or language, participating in an educational course, volunteering and making art – there’s no rigid path to follow to stimulate your brain as you get older.
The key is to keep it fresh, challenging (but not overly so) and fun.
“It’s about getting the balance right,” says Nicola.
“One of the tricks about mental activity is to not just focus on what you’re really good at – that’s not going to stimulate your brain as much as something you can’t do. Find the comfortable edge of challenge, but not to the point that you’re overwhelmed.
“One client came to me, a nun, and as a result of being given some tasks, she went and got an iPad and an iPhone and completely embraced all the technology of the 21st century, despite having no previous exposure to it.
“It expands people’s worlds. We’ve found that people’s psychological wellbeing also improved through a sense of accomplishment, confidence, autonomy, mastery and all those sorts of wonderful aspects of psychological resilience.”
While the effect of these activities on brain health cannot be understated, enjoyment, pleasure and social connection are positive by-products.
“Learning a new language, music, singing or art – something that takes you out of your comfort zone – later in life helps us exercise our brain by creating new neural pathways, it keeps those processes alive,” enthuses Nancy.
“But you have to make the exercises and mental activity fun. You keep doing it because you enjoy it rather than it being a chore. Learning new skills and enjoyment is more important than becoming really good at something or setting yourself huge goals that become a burden.
“Mahjong is culturally specific to my family – I learnt it as a young child playing with my grandparents. It was something they enjoyed doing to keep their brain active, as well as being a social thing.”
As with physical exercise, several adages apply to mental activity: use it or lose it, better late than never, and something is better than nothing.
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.