It’s easy to notice how your body ages over time. You develop wrinkles. Your hair turns gray (or falls out). Your knees start to hurt a little bit more. Your skin gets a little droopy in places. Maybe your eyesight and your hearing both start to fade a bit. These signs are hard to miss.
But it’s harder to see how aging impacts your mind. You might notice that your memory isn’t as good as it used to be–and that you have to start writing important dates on your calendar. Maybe you miss important events or lose your train of thought more often. The trouble is that this kind of cognitive decline happens so slowly and gradually that you may never notice it. (For those with hearing loss, the psychological effects of hearing loss can often exacerbate this decline)
Luckily, there are some ways that you can exercise your brain to keep it sharp and healthy as you age. Even better, these exercises can be downright fun!
The Link Between Hearing and Cognition
Most people will slowly lose their hearing as they age (for a wide variety of reasons). This can lead to a higher risk of cognitive decline. So, why does hearing loss cause cognitive decline? Research points to several hidden risks of hearing loss.
- When you have untreated hearing loss, the part of your brain responsible for sound processing starts to atrophy. Sometimes, it’s put to other uses–but in general, this is not great for your cognitive health.
- Untreated hearing loss can easily lead to a sense of social isolation. This isolation means you’re speaking less, interacting less, and spending more time on your own–and your cognition can suffer as a result.
- Untreated hearing loss can also lead to depression and other mental health issues. And having these mental health issues can increase an associated risk of cognitive decline.
So, can hearing loss turn into dementia? Well, not directly. But untreated hearing loss can increase your risk of cognitive decline–up to and including dementia. Treating your hearing loss can significantly limit those risks. And improving your overall brain health (known medically as “cognition”) can decrease those risks even more. Think of it as a little bit of preventative medicine.
How to Improve Cognitive Function
So, how can you be sure to improve your cognitive function and give your brain the workout it needs? Well, the good news is that your brain is like any other body part: you can always achieve improvement, it simply requires a little exercise. So here are some fun ways to exercise your brain and increase your sharpness.
Growing your own fruits and vegetables can be exceptionally rewarding all on its own (it’s also a delicious hobby). A unique mix of deep thought and hard work, gardening can also improve your cognitive function. This occurs for several reasons:
- You get a little modest physical activity. Whether it’s digging around in the dirt or moving buckets of soil around, the activity you get when gardening is enough to get your blood pumping, and that’s good for your brain.
- You have to think about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. You have to use planning skills, problem solving skills, and analyze the situation.This gives your brain a lot of great practice.
- Anxiety relief and a little bit of serotonin. This can help keep mental health issues such as depression and anxiety at bay.
The fact that you get healthy vegetables and fruits out of your garden is an added bonus. (Of course, not all gardens need to be food-focused. You can grow flowers, wild grasses, cacti, or anything your green thumb desires!)
Arts and Crafts
You don’t have to be artistically inclined to enjoy arts and crafts. You can make a simple sculpture out of popsicle sticks. Or you can take up pottery and make a cool clay pot! When it comes to exercising your brain, the medium matters much less than the process. That’s because arts and crafts (painting, sculpting, building) taps into your imagination, your critical thinking skills, and your sense of aesthetics.
Arts and crafts can be good for your cognition because:
- You have to use many fine motor skills. And while that might feel automatic, your brain and nervous system are truly doing a lot of work. That type of exercise can keep your cognitive functions healthier over the long run.
- You have to use your imagination–and process sensory inputs in real time. This requires a ton of brain power! There are few activities that activate your imagination in just this way, so it provides a unique type of brain exercise.
- You have to think about what you’re doing as you do it. This type of real time thinking can help keep your cognitive processes limber and flexible.
Whether you pick up a paint-by-numbers kit or draft your own original fine art piece–your talent level doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you’re using your imagination and keeping your brain sharp.
Going for a swim can help keep you healthy in a lot of ways! Plus, it’s always fun to hop into the pool (especially when it’s so unrelentingly hot outside). And while it’s obviously good for your physical health, there are some ways that swimming can also be good for your mental health.
Any time you’re in the pool, you have to do a lot of thinking about spatial relations when you’re swimming. That is, you have to be very aware of where you are in space–especially in relation to others. (After all, you don’t want to collide with anyone else in the pool!)
You also have to think about your rhythms. How long can you be underwater before you need to breathe? And that kind of thing. Even if this type of thinking is happening in the background of your brain, it’s still great cognitive exercise. Plus, physical activity of any kind can really help get blood to the brain going, and that can be good at helping to slow cognitive decline.
Just some time for you and your mind. Meditation can help calm your thoughts (and calm your sympathetic nervous system at the same time). Sometimes called mindfulness meditation, these techniques are designed to help you concentrate on what you’re thinking. In this way, meditation can:
- Improve your memory.
- Help you learn better.
- Improve your attention span.
- And more!
In other words, meditation can help provide you with even more awareness of your mental and cognitive faculties.
Reading is good for you! And even more than that–it’s fun. There’s that old saying that a book can take you anywhere. (The bottom of the ocean, the ancient past, outer space–you can travel anywhere in a book.) Think of all the brain power that goes into creating these imaginary landscapes, following a story, or conjuring characters. In this way, reading engages a huge part of your brain. You’re forced to think quite a bit–and use your imagination–when you read.
As a result, reading is one of the best ways to sharpen your thinking. You have to use your memory to keep track of the story, your imagination to picture what’s happening, and you get a nice dose of serotonin when you finish your book!
What you read doesn’t really matter–fiction, non-fiction, science fiction–so long as you spend some time each day reading and building your brainpower! (And, for the record, books on tape are basically as good as reading with your eyes.)
Treat Your Hearing Loss to Improve Cognitive Risks
Even if you do everything right, untreated hearing loss can continue to increase your risks of cognitive decline. Which means even if you swim and read and garden, you’ll still be fighting an uphill battle–unless you get your hearing loss treated.
When you do get your hearing treated (usually thanks to a hearing aid or two), all of these fun brain exercises will help boost your cognition–improving your memory, your thinking, and your social skills all at the same time.
Are you suffering from hearing loss? Find a hearing specialist near you and reconnect to life!
Once your hearing is under control, these fun activities will be much more successful at boosting your cognitive function.