Exercise Your Mind

Featured Article, Healthy Aging
on December 31, 2010
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The day before yesterday, Jim was 35, and next year, he will turn 38. What is the date of Jim's birthday? And on which day of the year is the statement true?

The answer: Dec. 31 is Jim's birthday. The statement is true on Jan. 1.

Brainteasers such as this one are like push-ups for the brain. And studies show that regular exercise is as vital for your mind as it is for your body.

Some people seem to grasp the importance of mental exercise intuitively. "Over the years, I've adapted various exercises and writing games to help get in mental shape and stay at the level I need to work at," says John Orne Green, 64, a writer and singer who lives in Placitas, N.M.

To get his mental gears turning, Green quickly composes short poems, concentrating on rhyme and rhythm, and not worrying about whether the words make sense. Another of Green's favorite strategies: "Take a routine apart," he suggests. "If you have a standard way of driving home, for instance, vary the route. It's curiously refreshing, even if it takes a little longer."

Just as weightlifting can enlarge your biceps, regular mental exercise can build stronger memory and thinking skills, says cognitive psychologist Michel Noir, a scientific contributor to HAPPYneuron Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., one of several brain-training companies that have emerged in recent years. "Remaining mentally active is also essential for quality of life," Noir adds.

Physical exercise helps keep your brain fit at all ages. Part of the reason may be enhanced blood flow to the brain, says Columbia University professor Yaakov Stern. "Physical exercise also seems to increase the amount of certain chemicals in the brain that are important for brain plasticity." Plus, in animals, exercise is associated with the growth of new brain cells in a part of the brain that's crucial for memory. "That probably is the case for people, too," Stern says.

Brain Power
Besides keeping you challenged and engaged, mental activity might help stave off Alzheimer's disease, a brain disorder that affects memory, thinking and behavior.

"We've conducted several studies where we started with older people without signs of dementia," says Robert Wilson, a professor of neurological and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "We asked them how frequently they engaged in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading a newspaper or book, going to a concert or play, or visiting the library." Then Wilson and his colleagues tracked the study participants' progress over several years. "We found that those who reported higher levels of mentally stimulating activities were less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease," Wilson says. Other researchers have documented similar findings.

Staying mentally active might not prevent Alzheimer's-related changes in the brain, "but we think it allows people to cope with those changes better so they can compensate more effectively," says Yaakov Stern, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. "This allows them to put off the development of problems that are associated with Alzheimer's." If the normal way to do a task is impaired by disease, more mentally agile people may find another way to do it.

Building a Better Brain
How do regular mental workouts improve brain fitness? The answer lies in a concept called plasticity, which refers to the brain's ability to adapt to the tasks it is asked to do. Studies have shown that in people who undergo intensive mental training, the affected area of the brain gets larger. "For example, medical students who are cramming for final medical exams over a three-month period show an increase in size of the hippocampus, which is critical for memory function," Wilson says, adding that the larger size probably is due to an increased number of connections between brain cells.

Experts say the key to building a better brain is to regularly engage in a variety of mental activities. Solve crossword or Sudoku puzzles, play chess, learn a new language, practice a musical instrument, read a challenging book. And don't neglect the fun factor. "We think the activities that are most likely to be beneficial are those that are sustainable-and that means the things that are enjoyable and easy to work into your routine," Wilson says.

Whatever your age, mental workouts help sharpen your brain-and as you get older, they help you maintain a mental edge.

Flex Your Mental Muscle
These resources offer puzzles, brainteasers and other exercises to strengthen your brain.