3. Games and Puzzles
Whether it's crossword or jigsaw puzzles, a deck of cards, chess or board games such as Scrabble and Monopoly, these "cognitively challenging" leisure activities have been shown to keep the mind sharp — and fend off Alzheimer's, too.
"I especially recommend Scrabble and Monopoly, because they tax a part of the brain that older folks don't use very often, requiring them to recall how to spell or deal with financial issues," says Sharon Roth Maguire, a geriatric nurse practitioner and executive at BrightStar Care, which provides home health care for more than 10,000 older Americans. "In addition, games that require other players provide the social interaction that's so important as you age, and especially if you're depressed."
The biggest benefits come to those with a lifelong love for such games, with some studies showing that regular playing reduces the risk of brain plaques that cause dementia. But any game where the player has to focus and pay attention to complex strategies is helpful, she adds. That includes online games and video games. Bonus: Wii systems don't require any thumb-stressing maneuvering. Wii sports games are even used as therapy for arthritis patients.
For some, music can be aerobic: "Everyone loves to sing loudly and dance around their house when no one is looking," notes the American Heart Association, which recommends a favorite CD on its list of heart-holiday holiday gifts. But according to University of Maryland researchers, just listening to joyful songs causes the inner lining of blood vessels to expand for improved blood flow.
For certain listeners, especially those living alone or in nursing homes, "familiar music, especially when it's a favorite song or musical style from yesteryear, touches an emotional chord that brings back fond memories," says Maguire. Whether they lead to toe tapping or not, good memories evoked by music can lead to good feelings. For those with dementia, it's even therapy. "Studies show that music helps calm those patients as effectively as some medications," she continues. When choosing CDs for older adults, stick with familiar tunes from happy times, Maguire advises. "The key is to select music associated with great memories."
5. Foreign-Language Lessons
Learning a new language is a popular New Year's resolution. Not only can it help you when you travel; it's also good for your brain. Whether you learn by attending classes or by using at-home software, studies find that bilinguals maintain better cognitive function as they age.
What's more, knowing a foreign language can delay Alzheimer's by up to five years, according to some research, and bilingual Alzheimer's patients maintain cognitive function longer. Other studies suggest that learning another language improves focus and the ability to multitask, with fewer age-related memory lapses in future years. And when a new language is learned in a short period of time, it may even increase brain size in the hippocampus, the region involved with spatial navigation as well as learning new skills.
Next page: Household helpers. »