With age, many people search for elixirs to regain their youth: Exotic cars they can’t afford, nips and tucks not covered by insurance, clothes more appropriate for grandchildren, and pills based on proprietary formulas whose warnings appear in an unreadable font. They drained their bank account on a flashy car, ingested “brain pills,” or tried to get into a pair of pants they wore in high school, but they still can’t remember where they parked their car in the Costco parking lot.

So, how can you corral your brain to avoid senior moments like mine at Costco? To find that answer, we’ll take a short journey. Each stop will bring us closer to creating a healthier brain. The trip begins with an obscure article on creativity—one that changed how I approach brain health. 

Stop 1: How Creativity Changes the Brain

In 2013, Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller wrote “Creativity Requires a Mix of Skills,”[i] an article on changing teaching practices. They maintained that schools should teach children the skills necessary to be creative. The six skills their research showed to be critical are:

  1. Providing multiple answers based on the available information.
  2. Constant analysis of what is being created.
  3. Willingness to redraft and start over again.
  4. Ability to engage in complex and creative problem-solving activities
  5. Ability to combine convergent and divergent thinking
  6. Willingness to ask “what if? questions.

Why is this article important in preventing senior moments? Because it maintains the process of creating and not the end product nourishes the brain. So don’t be concerned whether the sweater you knitted or your watercolor painting received admiration or snickers. The benefit to your brain is in doing the activity.

Stop 2: If brain cells die, can they be regrown?

As we grow older, we lose brain cells (neurons) and their connections (synaptic) because of illness, disease, and age-related conditions.[ii] These two entities, neurons and synaptic connections are involved in how and what we think, which includes memory.

In the past, most neurologists thought that new brain cells could not replace dead ones, nor could new connections be generated. However, in the last ten years, research has shown new brain cells and connections can be regenerated through, guess what? Creative activities.[iii] Even more surprising was that new neurons (neurogenesis) and new synaptic connections (synaptogenesis) can occur even in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.[iv]

Stop 3: Do Cognitive Activities Have Anything in Common with Creative Activities?

As I mulled over Goodwin and Miller’s six skills, I realized that they also were present in activities I identified as cognitive. I use the same skills when I write, work on finances, and build a deck, as I do when I sculpt a piece of driftwood. So why is this important?

Studies show cognitive activities also enhance thinking and well-being.[v] For example, your brain benefits more when you spend thirty minutes deciding where to plant the zinnias instead of watching the news, thinking about how to lay out a stone walkway rather than lulled to sleep by the Wheel of Fortune, or planning a dinner party rather than watching a cat video on YouTube.

Research has given us a blueprint for engaging in activities that will corral our brains: spend time doing cognitive and creative activities to “beef up” the brain, watch reruns of Law and Order to give it a rest.

As much as you might love to read mystery novels, playing chess for 30 minutes is more beneficial than spending the afternoon with a Stephen King novel.

The Destination: Activities That Reshape Your Brain

We have arrived at our destination: specific guidelines for selecting activities that will be as important to your brain as spinach was to Popeye. Do not waste time separating activities that are “cognitive” from those “creative” or combinations of both. Focus on

incorporating Goodwin and Miller’s six requirements into your daily activities. Twelve types of activities are rich in the requirements.

  1. Modify Existing Activities
  2. Add something new to a routine
  3. Engage in an activity that constantly changes
  4. Begin new activities regularly
  5. Listen to music analytically
  6. Exercise your brain with puzzles
  7. Spend time with creative writing
  8. Challenge yourself with video games
  9. Engage in non-electronic games
  10. Participate in discussions
  11. Purposefully get lost
  12. Create what-if scenarios

The Takeaway

Forget the adage, “The older we get, the wiser we are.” It doesn’t apply if you spend your time in passive activities, such as watching TV, being entertained by music, or scrolling through your Facebook feed. These activities are strong in refreshing the brain but lacking in requirements for strengthening it. Just as you need to exercise your body’s muscles, so does your brain need to do cell-enriching activities.

Take your brain to the gym, and create a “brain hygiene” environment similar to what you do for your body with regular exercise. If you are still having problems losing objects, apply specific methods, much like you would do if, after exercising regularly, one muscle group still needs additional attention. For example, in my latest book,  Preventing Senior Moments: How to Stay Alert Into Your 90s and Beyond, when I still could not find my car after creating good brain hygiene, I attached three balls to my antenna, visible no matter where I parked the car.

Keep searching for that fountain of youth, but instead of hoping to find it on a couch watching Judge Judy, go plant that broccoli.

This article was contributed by Stan Goldberg, Ph.D., author of Preventing Senior Moments: How to Stay Alert Into Your 90s and Beyond.