Age-Proof Your Brain

Doctors used to think that brain development occurred only during youth and that as we age, our brain cells (neurons) inevitably die off. But recent research confirms that humans can add new neurons throughout life. This means we can continue learning new ideas and mastering new skills. Each neuron has branch-like appendages called dendrites that extend in different directions. Whenever die brain is stimulated by an experience—even in old age—new dendrites form.

Neurons communicate with each other via electrochemical impulses sent through dendrites. More dendrites mean greater brain power. As we age, some dendrites naturally wither and die. The more we have left, the better our cognitive abilities remain.

Key: Building as many dendrites as possible.

Here are eight ways to stimulate dendrite growth and keep energizing your brain:

Switch hands.

Most of us rely on a dominant hand for daily activities. Switch to your nondominant hand. Research has shown that this type of exercise can substantially increase the number of circuits in the cerebral cortex.

If you brush your teeth with your right hand, use your left for a few weeks.

Switch to your nondominant hand as frequently as possible—when eating, styling your hair, writing, painting.

“Lose” a sense.

An abundance of new neural pathways forms when you exercise your senses in ways you normally don’t. It’s well known, for example, that blind people end up developing other senses to a much higher level than those who have their sight.

Brain-imaging experiments involving blind braille readers show that extensive practice using the fingers to make fine distinctions between objects or textures causes “rewiring” of the brain.

Most of us rely on sight above all. Substitute the sense of touch for daily tasks and activities, as blind people must.

  • Learn to distinguish different keys by touch.
  • Get dressed without looking, then try it with one hand.
  • Close your eyes and explore a familiar room, such as your bedroom, with your hands.

Then “lose” other senses.

  • Turn off the sound on the TV, and try to follow the plot.
  • See if you can tell what’s for dinner by the aromas you smell.
  • Taste foods while holding your nose. This forces you to use different neural pathways to experience the food.

Use all your senses. Something as simple as grocery shopping can stimulate the brain if you consciously use all your senses.

  • Smell the tomatoes, thump the melons, feel the plums, taste food samples offered. Buy foods for a theme meal—say a meal made up of only red foods.
  • The same can be done on a grander scale outdoors. Whether you’re fishing, hiking or just taking a stroll.
  • Feel changes in wind direction on your face and arms.
  • Smell the air, and try to identify natural odors. Extensive research shows that linking places or things to the olfactory sense (smell) enhances memory.
  • Listen intently to water splashing or a bird’s song.

Be adventurous.

The less familiar an activity is to you, the more it stimulates your brain. Try things you’ve wanted to do, even if they initially feel uncomfortable.

Brain-imaging studies show that new experiences activate large areas of the cerebral cortex, indicating brain stimulation.

  • Sign up for an acting camp.
  • Travel by train across the US or by ship across the ocean.
  • Vacation on a dude ranch.

Make small changes.

Even minor changes in your routine activate the cortex and hippocampus (a part of the brain crucial for memory formation) to create new neural pathways.

  • If you always watch TV from the same chair, switch.
  • Dine in a different room.
  • Reorganize your desk.
  • Rearrange furniture.
  • Take a different route to work or the gym.

Or simply do the same things—but in a different order. Eat breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast, or shower after drinking your coffee instead of before. Travel around the grocery store in the opposite direction.

Take up a challenging hobby.

Devote yourself to a new pastime that calls for complex skills. Artistic pursuits, for example, activate nonverbal and emotional centers in the cortex.

  • Learn a musical instrument.
  • Study a foreign language.
  • Take up a sport, such as tennis or golf, that requires mastering multiple techniques. (Note: you aren’t as young as you once were so have a sports medicine supplier at close hand).
  • Take up photography.

Go low-tech.

Although technology has made our lives easier, it also has removed us from many experiences.

Example: Television, movies, and the Internet may be entertaining, but they often pacify rather than actively engage the mind.

Take technology breaks. Do things the way people did them decades ago.

  • Bake bread or make spaghetti sauce from scratch.
  • Run or walk outdoors, instead of on a treadmill.
  • Go camping. Bring a sleeping bag, tent, simple food and a small gas stove. Leave the radio home.

Become more social.

Interacting with other people is the best single brain exercise. It brings all the senses into play, forces you to think quickly and hones your speaking skills.

Social contact is also important for psychological health. People with good social networks have fewer physical and psychological problems as they age than those who are socially deprived. Seek out social interactions of every sort.

  • Go to the bank teller instead of the automatic teller machine.
  • Make small talk with the supermarket clerk.
  • Telephone friends daily.

Also strive for more ambitious interactions.

Arrange social gatherings that involve a variety of brain-boosting strategies.

  • Join a book club.
  • Hold a wine-tasting party to learn about tastes and bouquets of different vintages.
  • Organize a potluck picnic in a nature preserve.
  • Set up a musical jam session or an informal chorus group.
  • Arrange a weekly game night for poker, bridge or Monopoly—anything that involves complex thought and social contact.

Lawrence C. KatzLawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, both in Durham, NC. He is the co-author of Keep Your Brain Alive: S3 Neuro- bic Exercises (Workman) and has published more than 50 scientific articles on brain development and function.