8 ways to challenge your mind

8 unique ways to CHALLENGE your ageing brain

A 17 knot north-east breeze is my kind of breeze.  Not to heavy and not too light – just perfect for dinghy racing on Sydney Harbour.

When I first moved to Sydney just over 10 years ago, one of the drawcards was the opportunity to learn how to sail.  My husband grew up sailing boats.  He was enrolled in learn-to-sail holiday programs from the age of 8.  I was 28 when I finally started to learn for myself how to sail.

One of the biggest surprises that came with learning to sail was how mentally demanding it is.  Not only must you think constantly about wind direction and sail trimming, but you have to consider race tactics, the position of other boats, weather conditions and navigation, AND you have your husband in your ear telling you to keep the boat flat and fast… all the while keeping yourself reasonably dry.

Mentally challenging for sure!

Neuroscience has produced a number of studies that show that:

Adults who regularly challenge their minds and stay mentally active throughout life have healthier brains and are less likely to develop dementia.

Some of the earliest evidence for mental activity and brain health came from studies of mice.  Mice who live in enriched environments (cages with running wheels, mazes, toys and tunnels) have better memories than mice who live in empty cages.

In fact, in a number of mouse models, neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease are shown to have their progress delayed by environmental enrichment.

Of course, human trials don’t involve locking people up in empty cages and comparing them to other people who have access to mazes and toys!  Rather they look at levels of mental activity over a lifetime – factors such as years of education, how mentally stimulating a person’s job is, and other complex mental activities performed regularly (I’ll get onto specifics shortly).

One study, by Sydney neuroscientist Dr Michael Valenzuela, combined data from 29,000 people (the more people in a study, the more accurate the results).

Dr Valenzuela says:

Even when differences in education and occupation were taken into account, people who kept mentally active after they retired were at lower risk of developing dementia.

In summary he goes on to say:

It is never too late to change your mind.

But what does ‘keeping mentally active’ mean for you?  How do you keep mentally active throughout life and beyond retirement?

Mental activity should be regular, reasonably complex, and varied – doing the odd crossword or Sudoku puzzle is not enough. Your mental activity should involve learning something NEW!

And it should also be something you enjoy so you stick at it!

Also, think about activities that combine mental, social AND physical components.

8 challenges to keep your brain active:

  • Don’t retire. Ever! Keep on working, even part-time, or volunteer
  • Play chess.
  • Explore a new suburb, city, or country. It’s true that travel broadens the mind!
  • Plan and plant a vege garden (fresh food is good for you too!)
  • Take an arts and craft class.
  • Learn to sail (one of the 2016 Rio gold medallists in sailing was over 50, and I sail with a very fit gentleman who is over 80!!)
  • Start a blog.
  • Form a Walking Book Club

Now, this list might sound trite and a bit like a crash course in ‘what to do when you retire so you don’t get bored’ … BUT the neuroscience is clear:

Keeping mentally active reduces your risk for dementia.

My personal suggestion is for you to visit U3A – the University of the Third Age.  This international online university provides opportunities for people to take part in lifelong learning.  U3E offers many online educational, creative and leisure activities to their members all of which encourage positive ageing and health brains.  Go ahead… check it out!

Pang TY, Hannan AJ. Enhancement of cognitive function in models of brain disease through environmental enrichment and physical activity. Neuropharmacology. 2013 Jan;64:515-28. Valenzuela MJ & Sachdev P. Brain reserve and dementia: a systematic review. Psychological Medicine, 2006, 36:441-454Valenzuela MJ. Maintain your brain. 2009, ABC Books, Sydney.


What new activity are you considering taking up for your brain health?  Give something a go.  And let me know in the comments below!


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  1. Ingrid on May 23, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Am I right in saying that there is evidence that physical activity is just as important as mental activity in warding off dementia? (lowering your stroke risk, improving brain blood flow and all that jazz)

    As a long-standing couch potato, the puzzles and crafts are easy, its the exercise that I’m struggling with!

    • Admin on May 23, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      Did you read the 10,000 steps post yet? Might I recommend you check out my Walking Book Club as one way to motivate you to exercise 😉 That or ask Nick how he does it?

    • Jackie on December 27, 2014 at 4:11 pm

      I like this reply because it shows an example of how much the different areas pertaining to natural health are interconnected. And this is one reason why I like this site as well. Nutrition, exercise and brain performance interact on one another – as well as a couple of other elements, too!

  2. […] a week to online brain training (the amount of time SharpBrains advise) … I would rather find alternative ways to challenge myself cognitively – and writing this blog and running my medical writing business certainly provides […]

  3. Grace Smith on May 4, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    I believe that computerised brain training can be very helpful in building up cognitive reserve, as well as preventing cognitive decline. I have been using MindSparke for the past 4 years and whilst I do not practice it as regularly as I would like to, there has been no decline in my ability to perform this multi-tasking challenging exercise – I am now age 75!

    • Sarah McKay on May 7, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      Have you looked at my post on brain training Grace? It has some great benefits – IF you’re motivated!!

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