Five daily practices to keep your mind sharp, according to neuroscientists

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The pursuit of good brain health, while quintessentially important, appears to be having a moment. Its global industry, coined “mental wellness” and saturated with apps, supplements and media channels meant to support our quest in improving memory, attention span and more, is now valued at US$140-billion. That number is expected to nearly double over the next seven years.

This industry boom might have something to do with the grim, expected rise of cognitive disorders inside of our aging population over the next 20 years; researchers project that nearly one million people in Canada – nearly one in 40 people – will be living with dementia by 2030.

We asked people over 80: What’s your secret to a healthy, long life?

Fortunately, brain experts say that healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising regularly and abstaining from cigarettes and alcohol, can mitigate the risk of brain disease by as much as 30 per cent. Yet, they worry about a hidden threat to healthy minds: social-media addictions that pervade our lives, erode our attention span and hinder our ability to engage in deep thought. On average, Canadians spend 105 minutes on social media a day, and experts encourage that we instead fill that free time with daily practices that are more conducive to long-term brain health.

“In many ways, our brains peak at 30, so we have to exercise it like a muscle throughout adulthood to ensure we stay sharp well beyond that,” said Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Canada Research Chair of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.

“No matter your age, putting the phone down and going for a walk should be thought of as an investment for the future,” she said. “People must appreciate that cognitive empowerment doesn’t just become important when they reach 65.”

We asked Liu-Ambrose and two other leading neuroscientists about what they consider to be the best daily practices for training the brain, and some things we can do in our free time – instead of doom-scrolling – that will increase our chances at maintaining good brain health later in life.

Physical activity

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Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose said the exercise in question does not have to be intense to deliver cognitive benefitsGetty Images

Liu-Ambrose’s signature midday move is to leave her office between meetings and walk briskly to a local coffee shop. Her own research shows that short bouts of exercise throughout the day release hormones called myokines that stimulate neuron growth and promote a healthy hippocampus: a part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory, well into old age.

“Plus, we know that short bouts of exercise are good for muscle and heart health; it’s the best bang for your buck,” she said.

Liu-Ambrose said the exercise in question does not have to be intense to deliver cognitive benefits; it can be as simple as walking through your office building, or doing 10 sit-to-stand reps from your chair. And exercising outdoors is more likely to improve cognitive function than doing so indoors.

There is also a catch: the fitter you already are, the fewer cognitive benefits you stand to gain from short bouts of exercise. And if you are sedentary, said Liu-Ambrose, it may take up to six months of working out twice a week to begin seeing cognitive gains.

Digital games

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Digital games that are fun and make you solve problems are a much better brain exercise than social media, Dr. Liu-Ambrose said.STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

Liu-Ambrose is wary of recommending “brain-gym” apps that purport to deliver cognitive benefits, citing Lumosity, a popular app that was fined millions for claiming to sharpen mental performance despite having no real evidence to back it up. Digital games that are fun and make you solve problems – such as Wordle, Connections or Sudoku – are a much better brain exercise than social media, she said.

“The magic comes when you are engaging in something that’s fun and that is making you think.”

Dr. Claude Alain, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, agrees that phone games are a good alternative to scrolling. Yet, he also thinks people should be careful that the games themselves do not feed into phone addiction and isolate us from others and the world around us.

Playing a game like Wordle is a better way to decompress from workday stress than scrolling on Instagram or X, and can inject a bit of mental challenge into your day, he said, “but as soon as you become sucked into the game at the expense of your relationship or sleep schedule, then you are probably harming your brain more than helping it.”

A creative pursuit

In recent years, Dr. Nathan Spreng, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University, has adopted the habit of reading fiction to take productive brain breaks. What is important to him, he said, is mental stimulation away from the screen. In the past, he would force himself to only read literary classics, but now, any science-fiction book does the trick.

“Reading fictional stories can make you simulate an entire world in your head, and makes you work your memory and imagination. It’s a huge creative exercise that can really maintain brain health.”

Reading interesting fiction also forces him to engage with something he finds interesting. Alain said that method is useful across disciplines. A musician, for example, who spends a few minutes each day learning a new song or instrument stands a better chance of improved working memory and ability to solve complex tasks later in life.

“If you are a music person, listening to the oldies can unlock a bunch of memories,” said Alain. “And it’s important to choose a hobby you enjoy, because that means you will stick to it.”

Quality time with loved ones

Calling a friend or family member – or better yet, socializing with them in person – can go a long way in keeping the mind sharp, said Spreng. Navigating a social space – reading body language, finding common ground with someone else and understanding how we fit inside of a group – is one of the most challenging and beneficial things that we do.

Now that more than 30 per cent of us have ditched the water cooler and work from home, it is important to inject social moments into our day. Spreng said that engaging with people on social media might make us feel like we are making connections, but in reality, the quick fix is no replacement for the cognitive benefits that come from a real interaction with another person. Spending time with others can improve our attention and strengthen neural networks, and his own research shows strong links between memory and social cognition.

“A video call is better than a phone call, and an in-person conversation is better than a video call.”

Meditation or self-reflection

When in need of mental recharging, Alain’s go-to method is simple: He steps away from the screen for five minutes, takes deep breaths and revisits a memory in as much detail as he can. It accomplishes two things: the first is memory training, and the second is cognitive reboot from a challenging job that routinely involves conducting and interpreting new research. Downtime between those tasks is important, and should not be squandered by opening your phone in search of fleeting dopamine hits.

“Our jobs have us focusing for long hours every day, and if we supplement that with constant scrolling and commenting, we are probably overworking our brains,” he said, adding that it is still unclear how an abundance of stimulus from our jobs and social media will affect our minds in the long term.

“Any system that you overstress – whether it’s an athlete, a computer, or a brain – falters over time. Completely clearing my head for five minutes, and then trying to recall my hockey game from the night before in as much detail as I can makes me better for my next task at hand.”

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