"You can't teach an old dog new tricks."
While that phrase generally applies to people who are incredibly set in their ways and aren't likely to change, it really does speak to the fact that as we get older, our ability to learn decreases. Our memories begin to fade, we're not as quick-thinking, and our comprehension of new ideas is generally dulled.
The best way to keep your wits about you, and even stave off diseases like dementia, is to give your brain daily workouts so it stays in top working order.
You don't need to pay big money for specialized programs that promise to boos brain function, just try out these 15 steps on a regular basis.
2. Be curious
Research has shown that curiosity leads to better learning, mostly because you're more likely to remember something if you care about hearing it.
If you're not a naturally curious person, get into the habit of asking a general question, and then follow it up with more specific questions.
Example: What kind of animal is that? Are they native to the area? What do they eat? Are they endangered? What can we do to help?
Let's face it: typing has all but entirely replaced the need to write things by hand. While typing on a keyboard is certainly faster and more efficient than writing by hand, research suggests that we could be doing our brains a disservice by ditching pen and paper completely.
Scientists have found that while students who bring laptops to class are able to take down more notes more quickly, the ones who took notes by hand actually retained more information.
4. Do math
You might not believe this, but your brain interprets mathematical equations in the same way it views artistic masterpieces. Solving equations for yourself is a good way to keep your mind active.
Sure, math can be hard, but it is everywhere, so you might as well get a good understanding of it. If you're going to be cooking, doing construction, balancing finances, or almost anything else, rely on math instead of just estimating in order to save money and do the task more efficiently. If you're a bit rusty on some of the finer points of math, there are plenty of free websites that will help you dust off those old skills.
5. Eat healthy foods
Admittedly, this one isn't much fun. If you want your mind to stay in top form, you need to view food as affecting your brain in the same way it affects your waistline. Opt for meals that are more nutritionally-dense.
Yes, cookies and pizza are more delicious than baked fish and salad, but getting your brain the key nutrients it needs is essential to making sure that messages within the brain are getting sent most efficiently.
By combining the refined motor skills that come with drawing (or making other forms of art) with the spatial awareness, creativity, and other neural components involved with creating art really gets the brain going.
Looking at art and thinking about it can activate your brain too, but doing it yourself will give you the best bang for your buck. So, by all means, go and visit your local art museum to get inspired, then head to a wine and canvas night to make your own interpretation!
7. Do puzzles
Whether your puzzle of choice is a crossword, jigsaw, Rubik's cube, or riddles of logic, problem-solving is a great way to keep your mind active and your brain engaged. However, if you find these overly enjoyable because they're too easy, then you need to ramp up the difficulty and challenge yourself a bit more.
A good way to give your brain a workout is to give the rest of your body one as well. Sitting around all day isn't just bad for your health, but it doesn't demand much from your head either.
Physicians recommend at least 30 minutes of cardio 5 times a week in order to keep the body healthy, and getting that regular exercise keeps the brain active, making things like concentration and memory much better. Exercise also improves mood and quality of sleep, which are connected to better brain function.
Even a short, 20-minute walk lights up the brain, so if you're facing a challenging problem at work, go for a walk with your coworkers instead of just sitting around and mulling it over at a conference table.
9. Grab a cup of coffee
This one seems like an, ahem, no-brainer, but grabbing a cup of coffee does boost brain activity. Caffeine is a stimulant, and can help you gain some focus and even help your memory. Be careful not to overdo it, as drinking too much coffee or grabbing a cup too late in the day can lead to less restful sleep, creating a vicious cycle that will just require more caffeine the next day.
10. Speak another language
Speaking more than one language is a surefire way to give your brain some exercise. While it is definitely harder for an adult to learn another language than it is for a child, it's not impossible. Free computer programs like Duolingo immerse you in a foreign language and will prepare you for your next vacation beyond the standard phrases of "thank you" "bathroom" and "beer, please."
11. Play video games
Yes, this is good news. In recent years, there has been plenty of research regarding the benefits of playing video games. Moderate playing (so, not those 8-hour-long binge sessions) can boost the volume of grey matter in the brain and assist with cognitive functions including memory, decision-making, and even attention span. 30-45 minutes every day should do the trick.
12. Play music
Listening to music activates regions of our brain that have to make sense of the music's melody, rhythm, and lyrics, which is great to get the brain going.
Brain activity increases dramatically if you sing or play an instrument yourself, because you get all of the benefits of hearing the music, with the added bonus of lighting up your brain in the areas responsible for you physically making the music.
Taking time to sit and be peaceful can really amp up brain activity. Research has shown that non-directive meditation (where you focus on your breathing or a specific nonsense sound, but don't actively try to block out thoughts) can increase memory, concentration, and even decrease stress.
14. Get some sleep
Pulling an all-nighter to cram for an exam? That's not a wise thing to do, according to science. While it might sound like a good idea so you can re-read chapters in a textbook and organize your notes, there's a good chance you could end up doing worse. Your brain does all of its housekeeping and gets rid of toxins while you sleep, so staying up all night will make it much harder for your brain to recall facts and stay sharp the next day. Do all of your studying ahead of time, and getting a good night of sleep will be one of the best ways to help you ace the exam.
15. Learn a new skill
Really give your brain a boost by learning how to do something new, like cooking, sewing, playing an instrument, or (like the gif above) juggling hammers to help with carpentry. Learning a new skill that requires motor function will create many brand new neural connections in your brain, boosting it's ability to learn other things.
[Header image credit: Kikovic/iStockphoto]