Our brain changes every day. We can feel when it is firing on all cylinders and our thoughts connect fluidly. Alternatively, we all have days when we feel like we are in a fog and words are harder to find. On those days, we wonder, "Am I losing my mental edge?"
For most healthy adults, the issue isn't your age — it's how you are using your brain. The way we think drives its overall health and performance. You can train your brain to perform at an optimal level, race it into the ground, or slowly smother its brilliance by submitting to life on autopilot.
(MORE: How You Can Make Your Brain Smarter Every Day)
Your brain remains highly malleable throughout your life, an asset known as neuroplasticity. Healthy adults who learn to sharpen this inherent trait as they age will not only improve cognitive performance, but also bring about beneficial physiological changes to their brains. At the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, we've developed nine strategies to boost neuroplasticity. Our research has shown that adults 55 and older who use these strategies can regain lost cognitive performance, improve blood flow in the brain, speed up communication between its regions and expand its structural connections. Some of these positive changes can be evoked in a matter of hours.
Adopting this new, healthier way of thinking translates into real-life benefits that support our ability to make decisions, think critically, reason and plan. In other words, shaping your brain by engaging in the right kind of daily mental exercise has the power to make you smarter and reverse brain aging.
Here are three of the strategies that we used in our study and how they can address common problems:
The Problem: Failure to finish projects
The Culprit: Out of control to-do lists
Constant mental work is not good for you. Our brains are not wired to do more than one thing at a time. When we try to accomplish too much at once, we are more prone to make errors and feel stressed out.
The solution is to make sure that you allot time for brain breaks and prioritize your to-do list each day. Place the two most important items, the ones that require the greatest brainpower, at the top of the list. Set aside focused time, away from phone calls, texts and emails, to give your undivided attention to the task at hand. Completing your most challenging to-dos first delivers a daily sense of accomplishment and allows you to achieve noticeable progress.
(MORE: Why Single-Tasking Makes You Smarter)
2. Zoom Out
The Problem: Feeling jaded
The Culprit: Rote, uninspired thinking
When we are bogged down in details and minutiae, our brains often get stuck blindly following directions and regurgitating facts. Operating in this way, oblivious to the bigger picture, is limiting and disheartening.
The solution is to take the time to step back and get the 10,000-foot view. Give information new meaning by synthesizing it and relating it to your own experiences. Achieving a new perspective will inspire your brain to generate new ideas and solutions.
(MORE: 3 Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging)
3. Embrace the Unknown
The Problem: Boredom
The Culprit: Living on autopilot
Life moves fast. Sticking to a routine may feel like the easiest way to stay ahead of the curve, but living on autopilot has its own risks, such as missing important opportunities for personal advancement by developing mind-nourishing, brain-challenging new skills.
Curiosity is a powerful force. It encourages us to continually ask, "What if?" Foster it by committing yourself to exploring what you are passionate about. Stepping into the unknown does not have to mean abandoning what you know and love. Simply challenging yourself to broaden and deepen your knowledge or skill will ensure that you and your brain are constantly changing, growing and expanding.
What We Know
Our brain is immensely plastic and it thrives when it is properly engaged. Other studies employing approaches similar to ours have shown that enhanced brain health and cognitive function gains are possible even in individuals who have experienced brain injury or are suffering from brain disease. Likewise, a version of these strategies implemented in middle- and upper-school classrooms resulted in higher test scores and improved critical-thinking skills for teens regardless of their socioeconomic status.
The fact is science confirms that no matter what your age or condition, if you choose to adopt a proactive approach to mental vibrancy — today — your brain can age stronger and healthier than you ever imagined.