What Is Mental Stimulation?
Mental stimulation can be classed as anything that exercises the brain. As Age UK explains, “if we want our brain to stay in peak condition, we should use it.” If we don’t, we risk cognitive decline in the form of reduced thinking skills, memory problems and creativity, amongst others.
They go on to say that “people who do more mentally stimulating activities have better thinking skills in older age.” There are many activities that can encourage mental stimulation in people of all ages but may especially benefit older people, such as word or puzzle games, card games, strategy games like chess, reading, and dexterity activities, although there are many more examples.
What Is Brain Plasticity?
Brain plasticity – also known as neuroplasticity – is the brain’s ability to “modify its connections or re-wire itself”, according to Dr Duncan Banks, a lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at the Open University. Without this ability, “any brain, not just the human brain, would be unable to develop from infancy through to adulthood or recover from brain injury.”
Neural pathways in the brain are able to replicate another’s function if the original pathway is damaged, which means that small developmental errors or temporary loss of function can usually be corrected.
Unfortunately, there are limits to the brain’s ability to recover from damage though, and that’s when the area of damage is on a larger scale, for example after severe head trauma or impairment resulting from dementia.
However, even in certain cases of larger-scale damage, such as in brain injury or after a stroke, some element of function can often be recovered if the right conditions for recovery are present, such as age, intense physiotherapy and the brain’s ability to re-route the connection.
What Happens to The Brain as We Age?
When we are born we have about 2,500 synapses in every neuron, however by the time we are two or three years old this has increased to around 15,000 synapses, there to help us learn the new skills we need and to process our changing environment and experiences.
By adulthood, though this has halved, although this doesn’t mean we can’t learn new skills well into older age in most circumstances. As our brains age we may take longer to retain the information than we would have when we were younger. This is because “the parts of our brain responsible for learning and memory are particularly susceptible to change with age (prefrontal cortex and hippocampus)” according to an article on the Open University’s Open Learn website.
How Does This Affect Cognitive Function?
Cognitive function is reduced when the ‘highways’ of the brain (it’s neurones and neurotransmitters) are affected by the presence of ‘plaques’ (caused by clumps of protein), ‘tangles’ (twisted fibres), or narrowed arteries. Changes in the brain as we age therefore are caused by more than one thing, it’s not simply because we get older that these things happen.
For instance, genetic predisposition, medication, lifestyle choices, diet and pre-existing health conditions can all play their part. However, susceptibility to reduced cognitive function is certainly greater as we age, which is why according to the OU, “many people report it feels harder to learn new things in later life than as a child and remembering and paying attention to information can feel harder with age.”
How Can We Keep Our Brains Active?
One of the best ways to keep the brain healthy, according to the Global Council on Brain Health, is physical exercise. This is because being physically active increases heart rate, pumping more oxygen to the brain. This is beneficial, says Scientific American, because it “aids the release of hormones which provide an excellent environment for the growth of brain cells.” There’s also evidence that brain plasticity is benefitted by the outcomes of exercise because it stimulates “the growth of new connections between cells” in many important areas of the brain’s cortex.
For people who find physical activity difficult or impossible though there are other ways that brain health can be promoted, and one of the best is through undertaking new hobbies that we’ve never done before, rather than relying on the same activities we’ve always done and can do almost by routine. Age UK agrees, saying that recent studies have shown that “for activities to be effective in maintaining or improving our thinking skills as we age, they might need to challenge us in new ways”.
It’s clear then that maintaining brain health as we get older is a rich mix of staying as active as possible, learning new skills and maintaining as healthy a lifestyle as we can.
Helping Hands can be instrumental in helping you to live your best quality of life at home, thanks to our home care services. Our caregivers are not only there for the practical elements of your care, but also to enrich your daily life through activity, shared interests and helping you to access the community around you. If you would like to learn more then please contact our customer care team seven days a week or contact us via our website, where we’ll be happy to call you back.
Page reviewed by Carole Kerton-Church, Regional Clinical Lead on November 5, 2021