12 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Start boosting your brainpower today
© Woman's Day // © Woman's Day

Just because AARP is knocking on your door doesn't mean your mind has to slow down. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that seniors who participated in brain-stimulating activities more than once a week over a 20-year interval reduced their risk of dementia by a whopping 63 percent. "If you fix your brain for longevity, your body will follow in kind," says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Center on Aging. Push your brain to stimulating new heights with the exercises that follow.

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Cross-train your brain

Cross-training simply means doing exercises that alternately work the left (verbal memory and logic) and right (visual memory) sides of the brain, thereby boosting mental agility over time. For a fun cognitive workout, go to our sister site, ellegirl.com, where you can play games like Chinese Checkers, Cubic Rubic and Puzzle Quest for free in the Games section. Or, if you're tech-phobic, test your skill sets with some good old-fashioned crossword puzzles, Sudoku or by challenging friends to a Scrabble match.

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Try something new

Neuroscientist Daniel Amen, MD, one of the world's foremost authorities on brain imaging, notes in his book Making A Good Brain Great that the brain is like any other muscle: The more you use it, the more you can use it. In fact, according to Dr. Amen, lack of learning causes the brain's pathways to start disconnecting, so he advises that everyone take 15 minutes out of each day to learn something new. Have you always wanted to learn a foreign language? Take time to master a few words of Spanish each day. Interested in ethnic cooking? Sign up for a course at a local culinary school today.

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Get a social life

People who maintain strong connections with friends and family not only live up to 20 percent longer, but are also likelier to retain their memory, abstract thinking and language skills. Make an effort to surround yourself with people who inspire you to be creative and challenge your intellect. Try forming a book club, or take stimulating group trips to museums, lectures and poetry readings.

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Hit the sheets

A UCLA study found that decreased estrogen in women is associated with lessened brain activity and poor memory. Engaging in sexual activity at least once a week enhances estrogen levels, thereby improving overall brain function.

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Eat right to stay bright

Foods that are rich in antioxidants -- such as berries, dark leafy greens, grapes, carrots, beets and tomatoes -- have been proven to keep your brain in peak working order by preventing cholesterol from lining your arteries and slowing blood flow to the brain. Now there's mounting evidence that omega-3 fatty acids are also essential to good brain health. Says nutrition expert Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, "You should aim for two 6-oz servings of fatty fish, like salmon and light tuna, per week, as well as add walnuts and flaxseed oil to your eating plan to boost omega-3s."

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Get to stepping

Engaging in regular exercise keeps not only your body but your mind on the move. "The research on the mental health benefits of exercise is incredibly clear: A daily cardiovascular exercise program helps you feel more lively and alert, and reduces symptoms of stress and anxiety," explains Laurie B. Mintz, PhD, associate professor of educational, school and counseling psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. But when it comes to the brain, not all exercise is created equal. In a study conducted by the University of Illinois, results showed that aerobic exercise increased brain volume and white matter (which aids connectivity between brain cells) more than stretching and toning exercises.

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Chew gum

It may sound wacky, but according to a new study conducted by the University of Northumbria, chewing gum has a positive effect on thinking, memory and other cognitive functions. Andrew Scholey, PhD, of the university's Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit, attributes this effect to a mild increase in heart rate, which results in increased delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain, and thereby improves cognition.

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Take a whiff

Japanese researchers have discovered that certain scents can actually make you more productive. In fact, several corporations in Japan now employ aromatherapy as a brain stimulant for their employees. Try sniffing lemon oil for a morning pick-me-up, peppermint oil to ward off drowsiness and lavender oil to keep those mental wheels turning throughout the day.

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Change your tack

Forcing yourself to use your nondominant hand expands brain circuits that are connected to that hand, leading to increased mental agility. If you're a lefty, try using your right hand to brush your teeth or stir a pot of food. If you're a righty, use your left hand to wipe down a counter or jot down quick notes. You can also try walking backwards; it's known to help stimulate the brain and, according to some evidence, can actually help it grow in size.

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