My regular readers know that my husband and I recently returned from a delightful trip to Spain and France. Among the challenges was dealing with language. My husband speaks a smattering of Spanish and I speak a smattering of French, so basic communication was possible.

Actually, I took several years of French in elementary school, high school and college. At one time, I was probably nearly fluent. But that was back in the Pleistocene era. As you know, use it or you’ll lose it. Well, it was abundantly clear I had lost most of my command of the language.

The interesting part is that, after a few days in Paris, I began to dream French words. I wasn’t dreaming in French, but my brain was working overtime to recover those long-buried language skills and remember words I needed, even grammatical structure. How exciting!

That brought to mind some Alzheimer’s research I did a few years back that emphasized ways to retain brain and memory function. At the top of the list was “Try to learn a foreign language.”  That doesn’t mean you actually have to learn a foreign language, you just have to try because it stimulates your brain to try something new.

My mother and my grandmother both had Alzheimer’s, so I am alert to anything I can do to keep my brain function intact. I can assure you that more French is in my future.

Here’s a list of a few other things you can do the retain brain function over a lifetime. Memory loss is definitely not inevitable.

Learn anything new. It almost goes without saying that stimulating any part of your brain where you haven’t already developed reserves will serve you well and prevent cognitive decline. Be a regular at adult education classes. Go for that master’s degree you’ve always wanted. Teach a class or take a class that requires you to learn something new. It doesn’t matter so much what you do; it’s more important that you are doing something.    

Work sudoku or crossword puzzles. This math brainworm stimulates the left side of the brain that governs logical and mathematical functions. Crossword puzzles have similar effects stimulating vocabulary-related areas of the brain as well as requiring some mathematical calculations.

Take up ballroom dancing. Exercise and socialization are key to brain function and ballroom dancing does it all.  Plus, encouraging your brain to memorize specific steps and movements enhances the development of new neural pathways. It doesn’t have to be ballroom dancing. Try line dancing, square dancing, folk dancing or any other structured type of dancing that requires you to memorize the movements.

Play board games or card games. Not only is this a wonderful social activity, it stimulates the thinking and strategic brain pathways.

Read a book, then join a book club. I think reading is great, but it only goes so far if you don’t retain what you are reading. It’s better to read a book and then discuss it with others.

Learn a new computer operating system. I really like this suggestion from Drs. Andrew Weil and Gary Small in The Healthy Brain. Their contention that forcing your brain to do something completely unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable is excellent mental stimulation.

Learn to play a musical instrument.  Chinese researchers found that people who know how to play a musical instrument are able to remember a list of words better than non-musical types. The scientists think that learning music gives you two important areas of stimulation: it activates the left temporal lobe of the brain, which processes auditory input and simultaneously encourages the development of an adjacent lobe of the brain which is responsible for verbal memory.

Switch sides of your brain. If you have spent a good part of your day performing rote and repetitive tasks, like weeding the garden, take a few minutes to write in your journal or work a sudoku. Conversely, if you’ve been writing or reading for a few hours, stop and file your papers, sweep the floor or do some such repetitive task to balance the stimulation of the hemispheres of your brain.

There are lots more things you can and should do to keep your brain healthy throughout your life. I’ll be looking into those and sharing them with you in the coming weeks.