Exercise Your Brain (What did I come in here for?)

I’m sure you have, at some point, walked into a room and completely forgotten what you were doing. Or you forget what you are talking about in mid-sentence. It happens. It is frustrating, but it is normal.

Some people blame this phenomenon on aging. I think aging has something to do with it, but I also think it is due to how you direct your attention. When I was super busy at work, I found it difficult to think about anything other than what I was involved in at that time. Sadly, my family and friends took second place, and although I went through the motions of listening, I was not focusing and, therefore, I forgot things. We’re not talking mere slips of memory, but full-out lapses. There were no bells ringing. My mom had Alzheimer’s, so my forgetting things really worried me, which of course made it worse.

I’ve found that since work stress has vanished, I have more time and energy to focus on what is important in my life, my family and friends. But there are times when I do blank, I forget, and as hard as I try, I mess up. My retirement brain is losing its ability to perform in an executive functioning manner. This means it doesn’t need to sort through facts, to compartmentalize, to analyze, or to organize. I don’t need to do that anymore. But my brain does need to remember other details so that I can function.

In my May 4 blog, What’s for Supper?, I did some research on what foods we need to keep our brains healthy and active. I even gave you some great recipes to try. (Did you?) In this blog, I want to look more closely at what we can do to keep our brains in shape. I came across a great article on the Second Wind Movement website about brain training. Basically, brain training is exercising the brain. When you think about it, we are consumed with exercising our bodies. We spend hours counting steps, going to the gym, playing a sport (according to Dennis, pickleball is 90% mental and 10% physical—I can’t win either way!) and pushing our bodies to the limit. But what about our brains? How do we exercise it?

Our lifestyle is definitely to blame for some of the lack of brain exercise. We spend a lot of time in front of screens and less time making personal connections. Alexa and Siri are working overtime! Think about it. Do you remember how exciting it was to have a calculator to add up the family budget? Now there are apps that do that.  It’s no wonder our brains are losing the ability to think independently. A study by the University of Michigan reports that a mere 10 minutes a day of conversation with another person can improve memory and cognition. When you’re working, those 10 minutes are pretty standard. But when you are retired, it is easy to not have any meaningful interaction with another person. Right?

Although cognitive abilities peak at different ages, the common theory is that the ability to recall new information, such as reading, peaks in early adulthood and is definitely more challenging after age 40, especially visual material. That sure explains a lot in my life. I can rarely remember the author or title of a book I’ve just enjoyed reading. In fact, I’m sometimes lucky to remember the plot! Yet I have friends who can recall every conversation and twist in the book. It’s been that way for many years, and I always chalked it up to not paying enough attention while reading.  It’s the same with a movie. I don’t even bother to check the cast now. It’s just information that I won’t recall anyway, so why take up space in my already clogged brain? I just want to enjoy that book or movie at the time.

There have been a lot of studies conducted with people of all ages performing various tasks to measure cognitive ability. Just Google it. You won’t be disappointed. Some of it can be pretty heavy reading, and my aging brain just isn’t into that these days. But the one common factor in any of the info I’ve come across is the old adage, “If you snooze, you lose.” Or, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Uh-huh. Chances are you’ve heard those phrases before and have likely uttered them yourself.  Apply either to your brain and you’ve hit the nail on the head.

So, what can we do to train our brains? There are many books on the topic, but if you’re like me and can’t remember what you’ve read anyway, there must be other ways. I do much better remembering when I physically do something. Playing mah-jong is one of those activities. I’m not talking about the matching game on the computer. I’m talking about Chinese or American mah-jong, which is played with four players and in person. It involves strategy, memory, focus, and yes, Laurie, a bit of luck. It’s right up there with chess and bridge as one of the top games to exercise your brain.

If you’re not into mah-jong, here are a handful of easy ways to get started exercising your brain:

  1. Learn something new. When you were working, there were probably many things you wanted to do but didn’t have the time or energy. Well, now you do! Learning stimulates different parts of the brain, and it can be very rewarding. How about picking up a musical instrument? Trying a new language? Have a look at the Open University. It has a lot of free introductory classes. Or try YouTube. You’ll be surprised at what is offered there.
  2. Stay Active. If you weren’t active while you were employed, now is the time to change. Any kind of physical activity increases the flow of blood to the body, and a healthy body means a healthy brain. Whether it be daily walks, playing a sport, or doing yoga, it doesn’t matter. Just stay active! Stay Social. This may be a little harder for introverts, but the benefits of social connections are amazing! If you have family or grandchildren, just visiting or playing can improve your cognitive ability. If they aren’t close, try Skype or another free app designed to communicate with people afar. If you’re single, there are many groups that offer companionship (no, I’m not talking about dating apps!) and you can pick a group you are interested in. Don’t forget that volunteering is a great way to engage with people, and there are many different opportunities.
  3. Get a hobby. Of course, you need to find a hobby that you are interested in, and don’t count watching TV! Find something that uses fine motor skills, maybe something that requires creativity. Keep doing things to boost your memory. Try taking simple quizzes or doing crossword puzzles, Wordle, Sudoku, Scrabble, jigsaw puzzles, etc. There are lots of games available for free, and you can play them on your phone.
  4. Life Admin: I just found this one online. I never thought of it before, but there are a lot of “administrative” things that need to be done on a consistent basis. For instance, updating your will, keeping insurance policies up-to-date, creating a budget, making a to-do list of routine activities. These things will take you down many paths as you research and discover alternatives.

There are many other ways to exercise your brain now that you are retired. You’ll have fun, meet new people, and renew your interest in life! What are you going to do? Share your ideas with others… just drop a comment in the comment box.

Interesting Reads & Things:

Use It or Lose It: Preventing Cognitive Decline | Winchester Hospital

7 Modern Life Habits That Can Be Incredibly Bad For Your Brain Health | U-M LSA Department of Psychology (umich.edu)

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More – Lifehack

Cognitive Skills and the Aging Brain: What to Expect | Dana Foundation

CogniFit’s Free Brain Games-Play Today.

Duolingo – The world’s best way to learn a language

Lumosity Brain Training: Challenge & Improve Your Mind

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