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Staying “Cognitively Fit”

Contributed by Michelle McDonnell, PhD

A common recommendation to participants at UCI MIND is to remain “physically, socially, and cognitively active.” While one can easily understand how to implement the recommendations for increased social and physical activity, it is more challenging to understand what types of cognitive activities there are and how to increase them in a meaningful way. This blog defines what we mean when we recommend increasing cognitive activity and provides some examples you can easily implement in your day-to-day life.

Cognitive activity (sometimes referred to as cognitive stimulation) is defined as complex mental activity that can potentially promote neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain networks to grow and/or reorganize. While this happens most in infancy and childhood, brain plasticity remains throughout life. Some research studies have even found that engaging in cognitively stimulating tasks throughout the lifespan may reduce risk for cognitive decline in later life.

There is a common misconception that cognitively stimulating tasks must be uninteresting, regimented, and sterile to achieve their ultimate goal. In fact, many entertaining and enjoyable activities can be effective forms of cognitive activity. Activities that incorporate a positive emotional experience, such as connecting with friends and family, joy, and incentives (e.g., winning the game, solving the puzzle) can even increase the level of engagement. The key is to continue challenging multiple cognitive domains (e.g., memory, attention, visual scanning, multitasking), and if possible, to incorporate physical activity (e.g., golf) and social engagement (e.g., games).

There are a number of examples of cognitively stimulating tasks you can incorporate into your day-to-day life, as listed below:

  • Card Games

Solitaire, Bridge, Gin Rummy, and even Poker or Black Jack (however, we would strongly suggest playing for fun and not using your personal finances).

  • Jigsaw Puzzles
  • Crossword Puzzles
  • Mahjong
  • Video Games

While your children and/or grandchildren may frequently play video games, there is some data to suggest there is a cognitive benefit for older adults who participate in video game play. This can also be an activity you can do with your family members and engage in some healthy competition.

If you are looking to engage in more challenging cognitive activity, you can work on learning a new skill or gaining knowledge in a new academic area. Below are additional options for increasing cognitive activity:

  • Learn a new language
  • Take up a new musical instrument
  • Take classes at a local college

Some local universities and community colleges offer courses to individuals over the age of 60 for free or at a reduced cost. While you may not be able to obtain a degree through these programs, this is a good way to increase your cognitive activity by taking courses and studying new topics of interest.

To gain additional benefits from the activities, think of something that is new and foreign to your everyday activities. Many older adults, including healthy individuals who are not experiencing cognitive decline, frequently report concerns about memory loss. This can in part be explained by an overly regimented day-to-day schedule. While structure is beneficial for activities such as exercise, medications, and sleep, particularly for individuals with cognitive impairment, it can cause days to “blur together” and make them indistinguishable from one another. This has been the case for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when you begin to participate in unique and novel activities more regularly, this can actually help improve cognition. New activities can help differentiate each day in your memory, thus improving your ability to recall the day’s events.

Even in the midst of the current pandemic, many of the above-mentioned activities can be done in isolation and through online resources. And you don’t need to spend a fortune to find opportunities to engage in cognitive activities—using your social network and finding free of charge options are likely to be just as beneficial as expensive brain training programs. Our hope is that you maintain your health during these trying times and find a way to engage in some of these additional activities while maintaining your safety.