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Brain Exercises to Improve Mental Acuity and Protect Your Brain From Cognitive Decline

You likely already know to brush your teeth and floss daily to help prevent dental cavities and gingivitis as well as to incorporate various forms of exercise to maintain your strength and cardiovascular health. However, you may not realize there are things you can do to keep your brain sharp and mentally acute.

A 2019 study (1) of nearly 200,000 adults found that those who had a healthier lifestyle were less likely to develop dementia over the course of eight years, even if genetically at risk for dementia — and a 2020 study (2) came to a similar conclusion. Beyond general healthy habits though, there are specific activities that have been shown to boost brainpower and prevent cognitive decline – brain exercises.

What are brain exercises?

Simply put, brain exercises are any activity that engages your brain, including everything from puzzle games, active reading, participation in bocce ball, ping pong, or chess, and even socializing with friends and neighbors. Importantly, for brain exercises to be effective, the activity requires you to earnestly participate. Passive stimuli, such as watching TV, gives you some visual stimulation, however fails to engage neural stimulation to the level required to trigger the activity-associated mechanisms of neural plasticity.

Do brain exercises really work?

Probably — but it’s complicated. Memories aren’t stored in just one part of the brain, instead they are stored across various, interconnected brain regions. For explicit memories, which are about events that happened to you (episodic), as well as general facts and information (semantic), there are three important areas of the brain: the hippocampus, the neocortex and the amygdala. Implicit memories, such as motor memories, rely on the basal ganglia and cerebellum. Short-term working memory relies most heavily on the prefrontal cortex, which also plays an important role in intelligence, concentration, temper and personality.

Because the brain is such a complex organ, it can be difficult to study the effects certain activities have on our brain, especially our inability to eliminate confounding variables in our day-to-day engagement. Current studies cannot show conclusively that performing brain exercises on a daily basis will reduce your likelihood of developing memory deficits, however strong correlations can be concluded from the collection of overwhelming data available. For example, speed of information processing has been shown to improve via enhanced cognitive training through computer-based tests, but it does not necessarily mean that you are going to be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. That being said, engaging in certain exercises, even if they are specific to one type of memory, have been shown to reduce or prolong cognitive decline with significant increases in synaptic connections throughout the brain, improving the incidence rate of dementia diagnosis.

There is Hope!

Research shows the greatest benefits are observed when you incorporate several modalities of exercise for your brain – lots of variety! The more you do with your brain, the better it is. This list below summarizes various exercises for your brain that can help get you started.

1. Physical Activity

Studies conclusively show, one of the best things you can do for better cognition is physical exercise. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain; reduces the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes (three risk factors for developing memory problems); and lowers inflammation oxidation (which has also been implicated in dementia). A 2023 study (3) of nearly 1,300 women aged 65 and older found that for every 31 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous daily physical activity, a woman had a 21% lower risk of developing dementia. Meanwhile, a 2022 meta-analysis4 concluded that individuals who regularly participated in walking, running, swimming, bicycling, dancing, yoga, sports and exercise machines had a 17% lower risk of developing dementia than those who did not. New to exercise or not sure where to start? Contact us to set up a consultation.

Did you know?

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that indicate overnutrition and includes five components including: high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high serum triglycerides, low serum high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and abdominal obesity, all increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. A recent study (4) analyzing the data of 84,144 individuals, concluded that patients with metabolic syndrome had an 11.48 times more likelihood to develop dementia of the Alzheimer type compared to those without metabolic syndrome.

2. Play a sport

If you want to take the benefits of exercise to the next level, consider a sport that requires you to play with other people. On top of the physical exercise, research shows that sports require you to make quick decisions and solve problems, and give you the opportunity to socialize with others – whole-brain activity. Consider participating in our VW water aerobics classes and walking club, or utilize our tennis, bocce ball, and pickleball courts with your neighbors.

3. Socialize

Did you know, getting together with your neighbors is actually extremely good for your brain health? Having to use your eyes to see expressions and nonverbal communications, requires you to think and process. Additionally, the use of your ears as you listen to their stories and reminisce, incorporates executive functions to determine responses and create discourse. You are using your language, your vision, and your hearing, all which are actively involved and integrated. If you cannot meet in person, pick up the phone and call someone – you will give a little brain boost to both of you.

4. Do some math

The next time you reach for your calculator or open the app on your phone, research suggests you might want to pause for a second and decide if the math problem at hand is something you can solve without technology. In fact, one study (5) found that senior citizens who were given basic math and reading problems every day for six months experienced boosts in processing speed and executive function.

5. Learn a new language

Knowing two languages allows you to connect with others you may not have communicated with before, makes traveling easier, and supports a healthy brain. A 2020 meta-analysis found that people who are bilingual develop dementia at a later age than people who only speak one language. It may sound like a big commitment, but it is a perfect way to include a neighbor or spouse, and increase your socialization.

6. Become a puzzler

Doing a variety of puzzles is ideal, as the various types of puzzles engage different parts of your brain. Number games, such as Sudoku, are great for logic, as it stimulates the frontal lobe of the brain, which is associated with memory, intelligence, concentration, temper, and personality. Crosswords increase your ability to store vocabulary and think of words. Jigsaw puzzles improve your visual/spatial function.

7. Play an instrument

Performing music requires you to mix the physicality of touch with remembering and hearing — in a short amount of time. One study (6) found that people over age 60 who took piano lessons scored higher on tests of episodic memory and attention six months later than people who did not. Episodic memories are things we remember that happened in the past (whether it be 30 years ago or 30 days ago).

8. Meditate

In one study (7), individuals with mild cognitive impairment or mild Alzheimer’s disease who completed 30 minutes of guided meditations every day for six months showed slower degeneration in crucial brain areas when compared to individuals who did not.

9. Stimulate your senses

Participate in activities that require you to use several of your senses. For instance, when baking an apple pie, you might feel the dough as you form the crust, hear and smell the apples sizzle on the stove, visually observe the pie as you assemble everything, and then, of course, taste the fruit of your labor. Research (8) suggests that when several senses interact, it improves our long-term memory.

10. Sleep

You may not think of it as a brain exercise, but high-quality sleep is essential for our brains to function at their best. In fact, sleep helps improve memory recall, regulate metabolism, and reduce mental fatigue, according to one research analysis (9). While we are snoozing, our brain is busy removing toxins and reorganizing itself. If you do not consistently maintain at least 7 hours of high-quality shuteye night after night, you will likely experience brain fog among other health concerns as it relates to metabolic processes. If your sleep routine could use a little assistance, start with establishing a nighttime routine.

Final Thought: Just doing cognitive training will not prevent you from developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but it may help to reduce the risk of developing symptoms. It is important to engage your brain in a variety of different ways, as your brain works with nearly every other system in your body. If your heart is unhealthy, your brain is affected, as it requires a continuous supply of oxygen. If your kidneys are malfunctioning, there will be an accumulation of toxins in the blood. If your gastrointestinal tract is not functioning properly, the absorption of micronutrients required for the brain becomes insufficient. Everything is interconnected, consequently if you are trying to protect your brain, it’s best to focus on whole-body health.

  1. JAMA. 2019 Aug 6;322(5):430-437. doi: 10.1001/jama.2019.9879.

  2. Neurology. 2020 Jul 28;95(4):e374-e383. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000009816. Epub 2020 Jun 17.

  3. Accelerometer-measured physical activity and sitting with incident mild cognitive impairment or probable dementia among older women. Steve Nguyen, Andrea Z. LaCroix, Kathleen M. Hayden, Chongzhi Di, Priya Palta, Marcia L. Stefanick, JoAnn E. Manson, Stephen R. Rapp, Michael J. LaMonte, John Bellettiere. (25 January 2023):

  4. Kim, Y.J., Kim, S.M., Jeong, D.H. et al. Associations between metabolic syndrome and type of dementia: analysis based on the National Health Insurance Service database of Gangwon province in South Korea. Diabetol Metab Syndr 13, 4 (2021).

  5. Age (Dordr). 2008 Mar; 30(1): 21–29. Published online 2008 Jan 23. doi: 10.1007/s11357-007-9044-x

  6. Bugos, J., & Kochar, S. (2017). Efficacy of a short-term intense piano training program for cognitive aging: A pilot study. Musicae Scientiae, 21(2), 137–150.

  7. Front. Hum. Neurosci., 12 November 2021, Sec. Cognitive Neuroscience, volume 15 - 2021,

  8. Front Hum Neurosci. 2015; 9: 197. Published online 2015 Apr 21. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00197

  9. Eugene AR, Masiak J. The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep. MEDtube Sci. 2015 Mar;3(1):35-40. PMID: 26594659; PMCID: PMC4651462.


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