After years of hard work, your parents are entitled to slow down and take it easy. But slowing down shouldn’t mean disengaging. Staying connected, learning new things and socializing encourage staying mentally active, and can help ward off long-term memory loss. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. While there’s no cure for the disease, there are things you can do to help your loved one stay sharp.
Cognitive health—an important component of brain function that involves the ability to learn, reason, remember and adapt thinking processes—doesn’t have to decline with age. In fact, there are things your parents can do to ensure they stay mentally engaged, which not only lowers their risk for age-related cognitive decline and brain disease but also improves their overall health and well-being.
But maintaining cognitive health requires far more than doing crossword puzzles, says Dr. John J. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of the book Brain Rules for Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp.
If you want to offer guidance and assistance in keeping your loved ones mentally stimulated and active, here are some activities that are proven to have dramatic effects on cognitive fitness.
Dancing With Friends
Encourage your parents to engage in regular exercise. Staying active, whether it’s walking, water aerobics or tai chi, reduces seniors’ risk for dementia and improves memory function. Exercising with friends is even better. Researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found that highly social seniors have a 70 percent lower rate of cognitive decline than their less social peers.
But the best thing you can suggest your loved ones do is to go dancing, which combines more than just exercise and social interaction. “Older people stop getting nonexploitive touch after a while,” Medina says. “If you produce more skin-on-skin nonexploitive contact—just a hug or a pat on the back—you can change depression rates. Because dancing is nonexploitive touching as well as exercise and social interaction, you get three for the price of one. If you really want to help your parents lower their risk of cognitive decline, encourage them to get out there and dance with somebody.”
Teaching a New Skill to Others
Learning a demanding skill, such as how to quilt or take digital photographs, is the most scientifically proven way to reduce age-related memory decline, Medina says. But teaching a new skill to others has cognitive benefits, too. When seniors engage in intergenerational interactions, they can lower their risk of dementia, reduce their risk of isolation and increase their emotional well-being. “By engaging with somebody who doesn't think like you—like an 80-year-old teaching a 6-year-old literacy skills—all kinds of good things happen to that senior’s brain,” Medina says.
Chad Dion Lassiter helps keep his 76-year-old mother engaged by calling her for advice. “I make her feel like a thought partner for me,” he says. “For instance, when I traveled to Bergen, Norway, last year, I called her and asked her political questions, and she researched them and called me back.”
Playing Video Games
Encourage your parents to keep their minds active by completing jigsaw puzzles, watching foreign language films and playing games that make them think strategically. Not all games or puzzles are created equally, though, Medina warns. “The only thing sudoku does is improve your ability to do sudoku,” he says. “It’s a ‘mirror transfer.’”
Instead, look for brain games that challenge and activate the mind through ‘far transfer,’ which involves applying a learned skill to an entirely new scenario. Specially designed video games, such as NeuroRacer and Sound Sweeps, have been shown to improve seniors’ working memory and executive function.
Experiencing Nostalgic Stimuli
Encouraging your parents to read or listen to audiobooks is good. But offering selections of their favorite books from when they were 18 to 29 is even better. “Nostalgic experiences have many cognitive benefits,” Medina says. “People who regularly experience nostalgic stimuli are psychologically healthier than those who don’t.”
Aditi Tandon bought a journal for her father-in-law when he turned 85. On the inside, she wrote: “Everyone has a story. Yours needs to be heard. Please write for the sake of your grandchildren.” She even included a few questions. What was your school life like? How was it growing up with nine siblings? Can you describe your mother as you remember her? “I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be, and I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed,” Tandon says. “He’s not a writer, but I think what helped were the prompts I wrote. It gave the whole writing effort a purpose and a topic he was familiar with, and it’s now a work in progress.”
Other cognitively stimulating activities include cooking and preparing meals that are rich in vegetables, nuts, olive oil, berries, fish and whole grains; playing or learning a musical instrument; watching the news; working a full- or part-time job; volunteering in the community; attending cultural events; and practicing mindfulness and engaging in religious or spiritual activities.
Keeping aging parents engaged in a variety of activities isn’t always easy. The older someone is, the less mobile they may be and the more difficult it is to establish new relationships and interests. If your parent is hesitant to drive to the local senior center for dance classes, teach them how to use a ride-sharing app such as Lyft or GoGoGrandparent.
If they want to go to a community event but don’t have anyone to go with, encourage them to sign up for outings through an adult day program. If isolation at home continues to be a barrier, moving to a senior living community might make it easier to take part in organized events, field trips and cognitively stimulating activities and to develop closer friendships.
Urge your parents to explore their options and help them find new ways to stay engaged and mentally active. It can help reduce their risk of cognitive decline and potentially improve their overall health.