Everyday Ways to Stay Sharp

By: Heather Boerner | from: AARP | August 18, 2008
Courtesy of aarp.com, with minor editorial revisions by Monica Resa)

One of the best ways to stay sharp is to exercise that muscle between your ears, research indicates. And discussions with some of the top scientists studying the brain reveal that you can work your noggin in many different ways, every day.

Here are 20 of them:


Ballroom dance like the stars. Dancing is a brain-power activity. How so? Learning new moves activates brain motor centers that form new neural connections. Dancing also calms the brain's stress response. So try a Zumba Class.

Take your dog—or yourself—for a walk. Walking for just 20 minutes a day can lower blood sugar. That helps stoke blood flow to the brain, so you think more clearly.

Bear some weight. Adding a little strength training can help protect brain cells from damage done by free radicals—and encourage new brain-cell growth. Do weights in addition to cardio. See Dave or Debi to learn more about personal training.


Volunteer to answer questions at the library, arboretum, museum, or hospital. Playing tour guide forces you to learn new facts and think on your feet, helping to form new neural pathways in your brain. What's more, interacting with others can ease stress that depletes memory. Grab a video-game joystick. New video games, such as the Wii and Nintendo DS, offer brain teasers that make you learn the computer's interface as you master the brain games. That's a double boost to the formation of new neural connections and to response time and memory.

Leave your comfort zone. Getting good at sudoku? Time to move on. Brain teasers don't form new neural connections once you've mastered them. So try something that's opposite your natural skills: If you like numbers, learn to draw. If you love language, try logic puzzles.

Get some class. Live near a college? Research shows that taking courses—even just auditing them—can stave off dementia at an early age. Don't go in for formal learning? Check out book readings, seminars, and other educational events.

Join a book club. Pick up a good book to cut down on brain-withering boredom. Frequent reading is associated with reduced risk of dementia. And meeting new people forces new neural connections. Besides, you might enjoy the book.

Listen for details when a friend tells a story. Heed changes in the person's tone and register small facts you might otherwise gloss over. Conjure a mental image of the story. By doing this, you activate multiple areas in the brain and encourage memory formation.

Play Yahtzee! Whether you choose Risk, Pictionary, Scrabble, or Boggle, board games are associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. They activate strategic, spatial, and memory parts of the brain, and require you to socialize, which can help form new neural pathways. Switch hands. It may be uncomfortable, but writing with your nondominant hand or operating a computer mouse with that hand can activate parts of the brain that aren't easily triggered otherwise. Anything that requires the brain to pay close attention to a formerly automatic behavior will stimulate brain-cell growth.


Get support for stressors. You may love your ailing family member, but the chronic stress of facing the situation alone can shrink your brain's memory center. Interacting with others activates many parts of the brain—and learning new ways of coping forms new neural connections.

Sit quietly, choose a word that calms you, and when your mind starts to wander, say the word silently. A form of meditation, this type of activity can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which zaps memory. Meditation also helps mitigate focus-stealing feelings like depression and anxiety.

Check your thyroid. It's a tiny little gland in your neck, but it could have a big effect on brain health: Thyroid hormones (T4 and T3) help nerve cells make connections. If you don't have enough of them you may be depressed, tired, and foggy-headed.

Sleep. Shut-eye isn't a luxury. It's when your brain consolidates memories. Poor sleep, caused by medical conditions, worry, depression, or insomnia, can interfere with your rest. So treat yourself to relaxing scents like vanilla before bed. They raise the chemical dopamine and reduce cortisol, a stress hormone.

Quick temper? Instead of yelling, take a few minutes to cool down. The stress of chronic anger can actually shrink the memory centers in the brain. Get to know the signs that you’re seething and address the problem before it erupts.

Check your meds. It may not be you having the memory problems; instead, it could be your medications impeding your memory. Older antidepressants, anti-diuretics and antihistamines—all block a critical brain chemical from doing its job. Ask your doctor for an alternative.

Let yourself sleep in. Research shows that when you're chronically sleep-deprived, your body doesn't have the time to build proteins and other brain - boosting components. So instead of waking yourself early, sleep until you wake naturally.


Turn up the tunes. TV may provide a lot of stimuli, but watching too much can dull brain transmission. Instead, spend an afternoon listening to your favorite music. Music can lower stress hormones that inhibit memory and increase feelings of well-being that improve focus. Redecorate and redesign your environment. Plant new flowers in front of your house. Redecorate the kitchen. Rearrange your closets and drawers. Replace the candles in your living room with some that have a different scent. Making such changes can alter motor pathways in the brain and encourage new cell growth.