Challenging the brain to understand new concepts and ideas can help seniors slow cognitive decline, but the challenge within the challenge is finding activities capable of forestalling such issues.

Forbes contributor Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, notes that while most changes in the brain stop naturally occurring at age 25 — that the brain is, in essence, hard-wired at that point — there are ways to maintain its flexibility, even in our later years. It’s not easy, however. It involves changing habits and challenging our minds in ways that involve venturing outside our comfort zones.


Learning a new skill is critical

For example, many elderly men and women do things like build model cars and airplanes. Or they fish, play Bingo, etc. While these activities offer comfort and fun, they don’t test the brain in a meaningful way, which is the key to long-term cognitive health. Better that seniors are taught a new skill like editing graphics on a computer, or that they learn how to cook or type. Such challenges force the brain to develop new neural pathways — a phenomenon, Swart writes, known as neuroplasticity.

It is also possible in our later years to build up one’s cognitive reserve, which is the creation of neural networks that prove resilient, even as other brain tissue diminishes. Various studies have linked an increase of such reserves to holding a challenging job (like that of attorney or accountant) at an earlier age, or the result of physical exercise, maintaining social connections or engaging in leisure-time activities.


Finding new pathways

The point is, the brain can improvise. It can unearth other pathways to get the job done if it’s forced to do so. This can only happen through intentionally applying mental exercises that are new and challenging.

Playing games like chess can also strengthens seniors’ brains, impacting information retention, problem-solving and reasoning while improving socialization and physical health. Such are the benefits that Dutch author/journalist Karel van Delft has suggested the game might have application for stroke victims.

The point is, the brain, like a muscle, can be strengthened — and that process can continue even into our later years. It is imperative, however, that we choose suitable exercises to bring out the best in ourselves.