A quiz, a language or ironing with the wrong hand – keep your brain engaged

Crosswords, puzzles or learning a language can do wonders to help your mental health and keep you po

Crosswords, puzzles or learning a language can do wonders to help your mental health and keep you positive - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Christine Webber says its so important to keep the brain engaged as we get older, especially of many of us are spending more time on their own

We’ve always loved quizzes in the UK, haven’t we? But right now, we’ve gone quiz crazy. Everyone’s at it. And though we can’t meet in the pub, or wherever we normally indulge our habit, we’ve quickly adapted to grabbing a drink, throwing ourselves on the sofa and engaging with our fellow competitors via Skype, Houseparty, Zoom or WhatsApp.

But why is this happening? It’s not just to pass the time. Or for fun. Or to maintain links with our siblings or children wherever in the world they may be. No, I believe the principle reason is that we’re desperate to prevent our brains from deteriorating during the corona crisis.

Certainly, it’s common once we’ve turned 45 to feel apprehensive from time to time that we’re ‘losing the plot’. This is particularly true if we have an older relative with dementia.

And during this weird limbo period, we’re more anxious about our memories and minds than ever.

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So, I think it’s terrific that we’re quizzing – because we enjoy it, and there’s no doubt that it’s sharpening us up mentally.

But there are masses of other projects we can try that will benefit our brains.

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Many people are learning foreign languages. This is guaranteed to boost those little grey cells. And nowadays, there are plenty of ways to do it, such as taking a short, free course with the Open University: www.open.edu/openlearn/languages/free-courses. Or you might consider: www.italki.com.

This is an informal, quick and simple website to negotiate. First, pick a teacher specialising in the language you want to study – there are a wide range of prices and skill-levels on offer so you should be able to find someone who is a good fit for you. Then message him or her, and if that goes well, pay upfront for your tuition, book a half hour lesson on Skype and get talking.

I’ve been using the website Italki to brush up my rusty German. I was quite tongue-tied at first but after a couple of lessons I really got into it, and it definitely beats sitting alone at the kitchen table, revising genitive endings out of an old textbook.

Another activity noted for its cognitive benefits is learning a musical instrument. There’s something about grappling with all those black dots on the page and transforming them into melody that gives the brain a real workout. And it’s so absorbing, you simply don’t have the mental space to worry about the virus or your bank balance while you’re doing it.

As you doubtless know, the vast majority of musicians have had all their 2020 performances cancelled. This is a terrifying situation for them. As a result, loads of them have taken to working online in some way or another, and that includes one-to-one teaching. So, if you’ve ever fancied yourself as the next Eric Clapton or Lang Lang, give it a go.

You can also bolster your brainpower by tackling routine tasks differently. Do the ironing with the wrong hand, for example, or if you normally enjoy solving crosswords, switch to a codeword or Sudoku instead.

Finally, what about reading? Neuroscientists reckon that this is one of the best ways of toning the brain and improving memory. So, could this be the moment to open the weighty tome by Max Hastings that’s been gathering dust on your bedside table since Christmas 2015?

Or have you a yen to improve your knowledge of a particular subject, because that’s the one letting you down when you help children or grandchildren with schoolwork?

A friend is working his way through Maths Unwrapped by Mattias Ribbing and Per Sundin, which he says reaches parts of his brain that haven’t seen action for decades.

Meanwhile, two pals in the medical profession, who are appalled and fascinated in equal measure by Covid-19, are devouring everything they can find about global infections. Their favourites are The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum and A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – in which they discovered that there were problems with social distancing and panic-buying in the 17th century too. Is nothing new?

As for me, I’ve attempted to stimulate my own brain by reading Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. This is about geopolitics and gives an intriguing insight into why wars happen in certain places and never in others, and how rivers or mountains shape foreign policy. Would I have read this before lockdown? Probably not.

Is it pepping up my thinking processes? Well, as I read, I do get a sense that my brain is groaning a bit and feels as if it’s stretching into a slightly different shape. So, I hope so.

Finally, there’s another benefit to reading you might want to think about. The book of your choice could become the basis for your specialist subject when you take quizzing to the next level and go on Mastermind!

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