Across the U.S., more than 5 million adults experience Alzheimer's disease. According to the American Alzheimer's Association, the condition is the sixth-leading cause of death in the nation, and approximately one-third of all seniors have some form of dementia during their lifetime.
Increasingly, studies have suggested that there are means by which people can help protect their brains against the development and progression of cognitive decline. Whether living at home or in a retirement community, seniors may consider one of these creative ways of engaging their mind:
1) Learn a new language
According to The Guardian, people who are bilingual may experience the symptoms Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia less prominently than those who speak only one language. A study conducted by scientists at York University in Canada examined more than 200 people with probable Alzheimer's disease – approximately half of whom were bilingual. On average, people who spoke more than one language developed symptoms more than four years later than those who were not, and also received a formal diagnosis after a longer period.
Seniors do not have to have been born to a bilingual family to reap the benefits of second language proficiency. They may find it both interesting and mentally stimulating to pick up a foreign tongue at any age. Although fluency may not be the end goal, learning new words and phrases as part of a daily routine and keep the brain sharp and engaged. It's also a great way to become interested in a culture about which they may be unfamiliar.
2) Try an instrument
Like learning a new language, picking up a musical instrument gets the brain working to recognize patterns and stay malleable. In 2013, CNN reported on a study led by Emory University neuropsychologist Brenda Hanna-Plady that demonstrated how playing an instrument helped improve rapid mental processing, cognitive flexibility and visuospatial memory, among other skills. Hanna-Plady said evidence suggests that the benefits of learning an instrument can continue with age.
"Finding a way to harness this plasticity is probably one of the biggest hopes we have for treating brain disorders or dealing with cognitive decline in advanced age," Hanna-Plady said. "Similarly, continuing to play music in advanced age added a protective benefit to individuals with less education, which has previously been demonstrated (to be) one of the most robust ways to create cognitive reserve. Thus, musical training appears to be a viable model for cognitive stimulation, and can be conceptualized as an alternate form of education."
She added that, when it comes to improving cognition by learning a musical instrument, the earlier a person starts, the better. Still, the mentally stimulating nature of trying something new and demanding can help keep the brain in shape even during the earlier stages of dementia. Additionally, the pastime can be soothing and serve as a sort of therapy, whether led professionally or done personally as a means of expression.
3) Pick up video games
For anyone who thinks teenagers are the only audience for video games, think again. Forbes reported that programmers have designed brain-boosting activities that older adults can enjoy, too. According to the news source, the games focus on exercising skills such as multitasking and decision making. Furthermore, the programs are created to increase in difficulty as players progress, meaning that they continue to stimulate the mind, and don't just stagnate at a certain point.
As noted by researchers who examined participants' reaction to the game, the most important aspect is how the skills developed throughout translate to real life. Studies have shown, however, that people gained real cognitive benefit from the programs, and were better able to concentrate and multitask after their participation. Although seniors may not have access to a specially designed game like those used in experiments, checking out a video game can be a fun new way to engage the mind, and perhaps even bring them together with younger relatives.