Studies show that mental decline as we age is mainly due to brain inactivity and lack of mental exercise. However, if mental decline is not caused by disease, then activities such as reading, puzzles, playing games like chess or computer and video games, as well as other mental exercises, can prevent mental deterioration. Researchers have discovered that the results of a few days of mental exercise persists for many years unlike in the case of physical exercises where the results fade away with time if the person stops going to the gym. Their findings are simple, the brain has a tremendous capacity for neuronal growth, and this occurs even as we age, provided that the brain continues to receive stimulus to grow neurons.
In federally funded research, research teams divided volunteers into four groups, a, b, c, and d. The first group received no training at all, the second group was trained on reasoning skills, the third group in memory skills such as visualization and associations, and memorizing word drills, and the fourth group in different methods to speed up their mental processing. Each group was trained on ten sessions each lasting 60-75 minutes, the difficulty levels of the challenges progressively increasing with each session. After five years, it has been observed that the team that had undergone reasoning skills did 40% better than the untrained group, those who had received memory skills were better by 75%, and the team that got speed training showed a whooping 300% increase in their mental performances.
The study was conducted on 2,802 healthy adults from different backgrounds, the average age being 73. However, the volunteers were all healthy and in that sense, the study did not observe the effects of mental exercise on Alzheimer’s patients or those with other brain and neurological disorders. The comprehensive results and observations made by the study, with graphs and diagrams, have been published in the December edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
So, which mental exercises are the most beneficial for upping your mental capacity and stimulating neuronal growth? Obviously, watching TV is not a mental exercise for it is too passive an activity and it in no way aids mental simulation, but solving puzzles or crosswords, gradually raising the difficulty levels each time you solve one, doing mental math while driving or traveling, inventing lyrics, writing stories or poems, arguing philosophy, redesigning things, drawing, reading, or even computer programming, if you love programming, are all interesting activities that are mental exercises as well.
Meditation is another mental exercise – partly physical as well – that is found to improve one’s mental strength and ability significantly. Studies have shown that daily activities like yoga and meditation increases the thickness of the cortex in those brain areas that are responsible for actions such as sensory processing and attention (medically, the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula respectively).
In short, those areas of the brain that you stimulate through your mental activities grow more, owing to increased neuronal growth, bigger blood vessels, growth of supporting structures like astrocytes and glia, and increased connections and branching. Physical exercise, a balanced and healthy diet, and refraining from activities such as alcohol and smoking also play a major part alongside mental exercises in keeping the brain active and aware.