Matters of the Mind – Brain Building Activities

Brain-building activities that’ll keep you sharp and focused

By Mimi Greenwood Knight

We’ve all stumbled when reaching for a stray thought— a song we heard the other day, what we had for dinner, where we set the keys… and perhaps with increasing frequency as we get older. But research seems to show that performing regular, targeted brain exercises can increase the brain’s cognitive reserve and lessen the effects of age on our squishy gray matter. Next time you find yourself trying to remember something, see if you can remember to do some of these brain-building exercises instead!


  • Go see a movie in the theater without knowing anything about it beforehand.
  • Take new routes home to keep your brain visually stimulated.
  • Take a shower with your eyes closed or the lights off.
  • Switch hands—try using your non-dominant hand to do things like brush your teeth or eat a meal.
  • Try to do things upside down or backwards, like hanging a clock upside down so your brain needs to work a little to understand the time.
  • Learn a foreign language or work on expanding your vocabulary.
  • Solve math problems in your head without using pencil and paper.
  • Learn to play a musical instrument or study music.
  • Engage in activities that involve many senses, such as cooking and gardening.
  • Learn a new skill that involves fine-motor skills, such as knitting, drawing, or painting.
  • Learn new cooking techniques and styles.
  • After returning home from visiting a new place, try to draw a map of the area from memory.
  • Visualize the spelling of a word in your head, then try to think of other words that begin (or end) with the same two letters.
  • Try learning computer programming, which is a good way to improve your problem solving ability while also obtaining a marketable skill.
  • Take up a new sport that utilizes the mind and body, such as golf or basketball.
  • Write down ideas and stray thoughts.
  • Go somewhere new or try something unfamiliar and write about it.



Brain-Healthy Lifestyle Changes

Get Physical

Using your muscles helps your mind by increasing the number of blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain responsible for thought, spurs the development of new nerve cells,
increases connections between brain synapses, lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance, and reduces mental stress.

Improve Your Diet

A diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats, nuts, unsaturated oils (like olive oil), and plant sources of proteins helps ward off cognitive impairment and dementia.

Control Your Blood Pressure, Blood Sugar, and Cholesterol

Stay lean, exercise regularly, limit alcohol, reduce stress, and eat right.


Consider Low-Dose Aspirin

Some studies suggest that low-dose aspirin may reduce the risk of dementia, especially vascular dementia.

Avoid Tobacco and Limit Alcohol

Use of tobacco (in any form) and excessive drinking are major risk factors for dementia.

Control Stress and Get Enough Sleep

People who are anxious, depressed, sleep deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests.


Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy.


Mind Games

There are a variety of mind-building games you can play that’ll help keep you sharp too!


The popular word-spelling game can be played alone or with friends. Electronic versions are available for your smart device as well as on modern video game consoles and handhelds.


Selling for around $15 and small enough to keep in your purse or glovebox, this word-spelling game (in cute banana pouch) is fun alone or with friends.


This card-matching game runs around $10 and is a perfect choice to play with younger kids. Four free daily puzzles are offered at NYTimes.com.


KenKen is Sudoku that drank its morning coffee, combining number placement and clues to solve. Find it in daily newspapers, the puzzle section of your bookstore, free online at KenKen.com, or on your app store of choice.

Jigsaw puzzles

There’s more out there in the jigsaw puzzle realm than the nature scenes on the shelf of your local big box retailer. For ideas on unique puzzles and where to buy them, visit PuzzleSociety.com.


The Power of Pets!

  • The brain and health benefits of pet ownership are numerous.
  • Interacting with a cat or dog increases dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin production in the brain.
  • Pets are also a natural ice breaker when socializing.
  • Folks who own a pet generally get more exercise.
  • Interacting with a pet helps lower blood pressure and relieve stress.
  • Pet owners are less likely to develop depression.
  • Smiling and laughing at your pet triggers healthy nerve transmitters in your brain.
  • Petting an animal has been linked to a release of oxytocin, a hormone related to anxiety relief.
  • The routine that comes with owning a pet provides structure and a sense of purpose. 


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