In at least one important way, your brain is like a muscle. You have to use it or lose it. Exercised too rarely, your brain weakens.
In the same way you can reap anti-aging benefits from working your muscles, you can gain extra brain power, increase what medical researchers call “cognitive reserve,” and protect your brain and memory against the problems linked to growing older.
Adding words to your vocabulary is a quick way to expand your cognitive reserve.
Research at the University of Santiago de Compostelai in Spain shows that having a greater knowledge of language can reduce your risk of falling victim to dementia.
According to researcher Cristina Lojo Seoane, “We focused on level of vocabulary as it is considered an indicator of crystallized intelligence (the use of previously acquired intellectual skills). We aimed to deepen our understanding of its relation to cognitive reserve.”
In the study, the scientists examined more than 300 people over the age of 50. Of these, about 100 had suffered a moderate loss of memory, what is called mild cognitive impairment or MCP.
An analysis of the word skills of the people in the study showed that having a greater vocabulary offered protection against memory loss.
“…a higher level of vocabulary, as a measure of cognitive reserve, can protect against cognitive impairment,” says Lojo Seoane. Researchers also believe that solving mental puzzles helps keep your brain’s neurons energized.
A Wandering Mind May Not be a Bad Thing
Ironically, the best way to boost your ability to conquer intellectual challenges, according to research at Cornell, can be to consciously let your mind wander and “reminisce.”
“The prevailing view (has been) that activating brain regions referred to as the default network impairs performance on attention-demanding tasks because this network is associated with behaviors such as mind-wandering,” says researcher Nathan Spreng, an assistant Professor.
It turns out this piece of conventional wisdom may be mistaken.
Dr. Spreng’s researchii shows that if you can disengage the part of your mind involved in trying to immediately remember a face, a name or other information and momentarily think back to when you might have encountered the same information previously, you activate extra brain cells that can help your recall. Those extra brain cells, located in a brain area known as the “default network,” can ease your way to a better memory.
“Our study is the first to demonstrate that engaging the default network can also improve (mental) performance,” says Dr. Spreng.
Rest on Your Laurels
Another important way to help your brain rev up its performance is to sleep soon after learning a complicated activity.
Research at the University of Chicagoiii demonstrates that sleeping helps the brain consolidate new knowledge and skills.
“Sleep consolidated learning by restoring what was lost over the course of a day following training and by protecting what was learned against subsequent loss,” says researcher Howard Nusbaum, PhD. “(Our) findings suggest that sleep has an important role in learning generalized skills in stabilizing and protecting memory.”
In this experiment, the researchers taught college students new, complicated video games. The students who were allowed to sleep before being tested on their skills were significantly better at what they had been taught than those who didn’t sleep or nap.
“In that study we showed that if after learning, by the end of the day, people ‘forgot’ some of what was learned, a night’s sleep restored this memory loss,” Dr. Nusbaum said.
The lessons of this research: Learning the meanings of extra words, letting your mind creatively wander and getting enough sleep can help your brain hang on to its capacity for keeping your life meaningful — at any age.