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Sharpen Your Mind With These Mental Workouts

And earlier this year, researchers at the UCLA Longevity Center published a study of 69 healthy seniors (average age 82), who regularly spent 20-25 minutes playing an online brain fitness program called Dakim BrainFitness, which focuses on short- and long-term memory, language, visual-spatial processing, and reasoning and problem-solving skills.

After six months, participants showed improvement in memory and language skills; the more they played, the greater the improvement. Participants also noticed changes in their everyday lives — from being able to remember a grocery list in their heads to feeling more confident in general.

Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center, speculated that in addition to nourishing the growth of new brain cells, brain fitness programs may help seniors find new strategies for compensating for the age-related memory deficits they've experienced.

Keep in mind: Although all video games change the brain in some way, don't expect purely recreational games like Angry Birds or Grand Theft Auto to make you any smarter or build cognitive reserve.

2. Don't retire

What? Are we crazy? No, but there's a limit to how much time you can spend in a hammock with a mojito.

If you want to keep giving your brain the workout it deserves, you must continue to challenge it — every single day. Myriad studies have found that staying engaged in professional activities keeps the brain healthy.

So, before you quit the workforce, make sure you have a realistic plan not just for your finances, but also for structuring your days to fend off boredom and isolation.

If you can't, or don't want to, continue at your day job, create a new one. Continue to attend meetings and dinners sponsored by business organizations and stay in touch with former colleagues. By networking you'll learn about part-time or consulting jobs, perhaps doing research or teaching others what you know.

Not sure where to begin? Contact trade associations, government agencies or universities. As more Baby Boomers leave the workforce, many companies have established programs for hiring and training older workers interested in a career switch. Check out AARP Life Reimagined for Work, or Experience Works.

3. Make music

A study from the University of Kansas Medical Center found that continuing to play an instrument keeps the brain healthy as we age.

Researchers divided 70 healthy adults, ages 60 to 83, into three groups — those with no musical experience; those who had taken one to nine years of music lessons; and those who had studied for at least 10 years. After administering a range of basic cognitive tests (to assess attention, memory problem solving language, and so on), they found that participants with the most musical experience scored the highest — even though some hadn't played in years.

Experts believe that the years of practice create alternative neural pathways that help the brain compensate for cognitive declines years later.

4. Pay attention

Most of the time, when you have no idea where you put your morning cup of coffee after you went to answer the doorbell, it's because you didn't focus on learning that bit of information in the first place.

"Paying attention is one of the most important things you can do to strengthen your memory muscles," says Majid Fotuhi, M.D., author of Boost Your Brain: The New Art and Science Behind Enhanced Brain Performance (to be published in September).

While it may feel smartly efficient to return a friend's phone call as you pay bills and field a text message from your son about his job hunt, research shows that the ability to learn and remember is seriously compromised when you multitask. So minimize distractions and stay in the present.

You can also repeat a couple times to yourself, "I am putting my coffee on the dining room table," and you'll likely be thrilled a few minutes later to find it right where you left it.

Next page: Do a jigsaw puzzle.»

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AARP Staying Sharp: Keep Your Brain Healthy


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