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Sharpen Your Mind With These Mental Workouts

You pop a chicken in the oven to roast, call your sister about a graduation gift for your niece and (yikes!) you did it again.

That unmistakable burnt-to–a-crisp smell is yet another sign that you can't remember anything anymore.

To say you're worried is a serious understatement. Spacey moments happen to all of us, no matter how old we are. But when they happen at midlife, we panic.

Well, stop. "The truth is, 80 percent of people over 70 do not have significant memory loss," says Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Moreover, even if you feel your mind slowing down with age (and be honest, most of us do) help is literally no farther away than the local library.

The latest research underscores the importance of staying mentally engaged — not just by doing crossword puzzles but by challenging yourself to learn a new language, read a book you've never read before or take up a new hobby. These activities keep you sharp and help to beat back dementia by building extra brain capacity — something scientists call "cognitive reserve."

How could this be? There are many reasons the brain gets a little sluggish with age. For starters, sensory input diminishes. We don't hear, see or taste as acutely we did when we were twenty-something, so incoming signals can be fuzzy or muffled.

Compounding the problem: Many of us don't challenge our brains nearly as much as we did when we were younger. We may stop working, read less, talk to fewer people and stick to what we know and do well rather than try something new.

And that's precisely the point. Playing golf every day once you've already mastered the game may be relaxing, but as far as your brain is concerned, it's been there done that. A better idea: Dive into something you know little about.

"The brain loves novelty, it loves a challenge," says Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D., director of Stanford University's Center on Longevity.

Whenever you break from routine — whether it's traveling somewhere you've never been before or taking up chess — you're laying down new brain circuits and giving your memory muscles the workout they need to stay healthy longer.

Old dogs can learn new tricks. Here's how:

1. Play a brain game

Unless you've been living in a cave the last few years, you've likely heard about brain fitness games. These programs — play them on your computer or smart phone — promise to enhance memory, attention, problem solving, even creativity. Some experts have questioned their effectiveness, noting that improved performance on a game requiring, say, concentration, doesn't necessarily mean you'll perform better on tasks requiring concentration in the real world, too.

But new research suggests that skills honed in some brain games may, in fact, transfer to other tests and tasks. In a University of Iowa study funded by the National Institute on Aging, 681 generally healthy volunteers over 50 were divided into four groups. One played computerized crossword puzzles, while three others played a brain training video game specifically designed to enhance the speed and accuracy of visual processing — important for driving safety.

The result: Volunteers showed less decline over time not only in this area, but also in other tests of concentration, memory and the ability to shift quickly between tasks. More significantly, the benefits lasted from 1 1/2 to seven years after the training.

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.

5. Do a jigsaw puzzle

Anytime you engage several senses at the same time, learning will be more robust. Doing jigsaw puzzles enlists visual, spatial and tactile areas of the brain, as you shift focus from one small corner to the larger picture. Dancing also challenges several brain areas at once: You're learning new steps and moving in time to the music while interacting with others.

6. Go back to school

Although dementia is an equal opportunity disease, many studies suggest that people with higher levels of education build more cognitive reserve and so may be better able to stave off, or compensate for, symptoms. Experts aren't sure why, but lack of education is a strong predictor of cognitive decline.

Not interested in a degree program? Check out free or low-cost lectures offered at many universities or community colleges as well as online courses (;

7. Find a new way home

If you drive home the same way every day, you're not thinking about what you're doing — you're on autopilot. So take a new route, says Stanford University psychology professor Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D., "and you [will] tease your brain in a good way."

8. Take a tech break

In our high-tech world, where there's a gadget and app for everything, it's much easier to hit speed dial on your phone than try to remember your kid's cell phone number.

But like any skill, memory improves with practice, and using your brain in different ways throughout the day keeps it strong. So next time do it in your head. Nix the calculator on your phone and figure out the tip on your restaurant bill in your mind or on a napkin.

Practice memorizing important phone numbers, addresses and account passwords. Rely less on lists. Rather than jotting down the things you want to pick up after work, try remembering them instead.

One trick: Create a mental image — the more visually striking the better. If you need to get eggs, a collar for your dog and your black heels back from the cobbler, imagine your pup in heels with a nice smooth egg dangling from a fresh collar.

Similarly, don't immediately Google every fact you can't remember instantly. Give yourself a moment to retrieve the memory first.

9. Get a library card

According to a recent study in Neurology, reading stimulates the growth of new neurons and synapses in the brain and shores up the ones you have. Study participants who had a higher level of reading skills performed much better on cognitive tests than those who didn't, regardless of their age or number of years of schooling.

Reading magazines and newspapers, as well as books, improves concentration, focus and memory, and gives you something to talk about with others.

Margery D. Rosen is a New York City-based writer specializing in health and psychology.

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