We normally associate the term cognitive development with babies and children. While many adults don't think of developing themselves cognitively, they should, because younger adults who get into the habit of learning, being curious, and challenging their brains are more likely to mature into older people with healthy cognitive functioning. And if you've seen older people who are starting to lose their cognitive function, you know this decline can age you prematurely and reduce the quality of your life.
The good news is that exciting research over the past 20 years has shown that certain regions of the adult brain can generate new neurons and new synapses. In essence, whenever we learn something new, engage in new activities, or even ponder a new concept, the brain will rewire itself in response to these activities. Just like babies, adults can keep growing their brain and protect cognitive functioning as they age!
Here are some easy ways to keep your brain healthy and growing at any age.
The positive effects of exercise on cognition could be a whole article in itself. Scores of studies now show that exercise promotes more blood flow to the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory. It also increases tissue density in different areas of the brain, improving one's ability to learn, make clear decisions, and even handle stressful situations.
2. Be an active, not passive, TV watcher.
TV can be cognitively enriching when it takes effort to understand what you're watching, or sparks questions, ideas, or "aha" moments. A science show or quiz show are good examples.
3. Read and recall challenging material.
Develop new connections in your brain by reading something that's instructive instead of merely entertaining. After reading a page, stop and make yourself recall what you've just learned. This exercise boosts retention — a great study tip for students.
4. Find a new hobby.
Increase cognitive enrichment by taking on a new active pursuit that requires learning, as opposed to merely attending a baseball game or concert, for example. Find an interest that compels you to read books, talk to experts, take classes, attend conferences, or join organizations related to your hobby. All of this learning activity develops new neural connections in your brain.
5. Puzzle it out.
Forcing your brain to solve difficult puzzles makes the brain more nimble. There are many types of puzzles: crosswords, acrostics, cryptograms, syllacrostics, Sudoku, and many others. If a puzzle gets easy, switch to a different one or advance to a more challenging level.
6. Play strategy games.
Board games or card games that involve strategy are excellent for the brain, especially those that involve puzzle solving or new learning of some sort. If you don't have someone to play with, play with your computer!
7. Be a "learning" tourist.
Visiting museums, zoos, and historical sites can make you smarter IF you read the signage next to the exhibits, try to repeat the key information to yourself, and then do it again once or twice during or after your visit. Not only will you retain what the exhibits were about, but you increase the odds of being able to recall the information months or even years later.
8. Take classes and workshops.
Continuing education courses are available that do not require being in a degree program — you merely sign up for one or two courses whenever you feel like it. Workshops, conferences, and other gatherings where professionals in their field share their knowledge offer another way to build cognitive function through active learning.
9. Reduce stress.
Studies have found that people with high amounts of stress are more likely to suffer from cognitive problems than those who are free of stress. Find ways to reduce stress naturally if possible, including exercise, naps, counseling, meditation, relaxing hobbies, spiritual growth, and other means.