Executive function is a term that describes the myriad processes required for us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks. Successful application of executive function requires working memory, mental flexibility and self-control to work together.
Studies have shown that loss of executive function can be one of the signs of cognitive decline. That makes watching for signs of executive function loss important, as well as finding ways to keep executive function strong and defend against cognitive problems.
The first signs of an issue appear when trying to do tasks involving executive function. This includes such activities as managing time, paying attention, switching focus, planning and organizing, remembering details, avoiding saying or doing the wrong things, and doing things based on past experience.
What ways are best for maintaining cognitive function? That depends on your age. Nova reports researchers have discovered that with children, the best methods for bolstering executive function involve good parenting. That includes meaningful praise, affection and encouragement combined with intellectual stimulation.
But what about older adults? Research shows both aerobic exercise and cognitive stimulation fortify executive function and promote good brain health. They are especially effective when combined with a diet that includes foods that boost your brain function and slow cognitive decline.
Studies have shown aerobic exercises help older adults maintain cognitive function, especially in areas such as focused attention, the ability to switch among tasks and to hold multiple items in working memory. A study cited by Nova placed older adults into three one-hour sessions of exercise every week for six months. Researchers scanned their brains before and after the six-month period and found significant increases in gray and white matter volumes.
It’s worth noting that these same results were not found in those in strength and flexibility training for those six months.
An example of exercise bolstering executive function involved a study of women who practiced Nordic Walking. This exercise, which originated in Scandinavia, involves using two poles while walking, similar to those used in skiing. Unlike regular walking, Nordic Walking engages additional parts of the body and muscles, especially those in the upper body. A study involving 52 older women in Poland found that a 12-week Nordic Walking program, supplemented with Vitamin D, “can strengthen the cognitive functioning of older people—specifically, attention and executive functions.”
The women, who had an average age of 69, also experienced a perceived higher quality of life and a decrease in depressive symptoms.
Another way to bolster executive function is to engage in cognitively stimulating games and activities that slow cognitive decline. For executive functions, it’s helpful to work on those areas that must work together, including memory, mental flexibility and attention.
A list compiled by Bitbrain includes a host of cognitive stimulation games and exercises that can help strengthen these important areas. None require technology or your smartphone. You can easily do them with a friend or family member.
Exercises for attention. A popular exercise in this area involves seeing a series of numbers for a short time, then remembering them in the order they appeared as well as the inverse order. The amount of numbers grows as the game progresses. Another is finding the differences between two similar images.
Exercises for perception. A popular exercise in this area is being shown an image for a short period. Then, you are shown a number of images and must pick out the one that was previously shown.
Exercises for memories. A frequently used memory exercise involves showing a series of words for a short period of time, then having to remember as many words as possible once they disappear.
Games. Crossword puzzles, card games and jigsaw puzzles require a combination of reasoning, memory and planning that are all part of executive functions. All these are enjoyable and can help strengthen cognitive capabilities.