AMES, Iowa – Keep your mind active and engaged and you may be better equipped to handle the stress of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. This is true for people of all ages, but becomes increasingly important for older adults, says Jeongeun Lee, an Iowa State University assistant professor and extension specialist in human development and family studies.
“Being intellectually engaged may benefit the brain. People who engage in mentally stimulating activities feel happier and healthier. Learning new skills may improve your thinking ability, too,” Lee said.
For example, scholars from the University of Texas at Dallas and Canisius College found that older adults who learned quilting or digital photography had more memory improvement than those who only socialized or did less cognitively demanding activities.
Cognitive challenging activities alone will not necessarily reduce risk for dementia. Lifestyle may play a part. Scholars from Exeter University say there is epidemiological evidence that a lifestyle characterized by engagement in leisure activities of an intellectual and social nature is related to slower cognitive decline in healthy older adults and may reduce the risk of dementia.
“That means lots of simple and even mundane activities can keep your mind active. For example, read books and magazines. Take or teach an online class. Learn a new skill or hobby. Work in the garden or take a walk with a pet. These types of simple activities can be fun and bring meaning to older adults,” Lee said.
Research suggests that these types of activities may protect the brain by establishing "cognitive reserve," Lee continued. Cognitive reserve is known to help the brain become more adaptable in some mental functions, so it can compensate for age–related brain changes and health conditions that affect the brain.
“In other words, a robust cognitive reserve can help older adults function better and live healthier, when they experience stressful life events or health incidents, such as a brain injury. In my research, cognitive reserve also had a role in lowering the sensitivity to pain,” Lee said.
“Dealing with stressful incidents requires more resources and effort from your brain. When you improve your cognitive reserve by accomplishing and completing mentally stimulating activities, you could sustain your cognitive reserve for times of stress. You can consider these activities as building muscles in your brain!” Lee said.
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