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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 aboutbrain 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.

Next page: Don't retire.»

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AARP Staying Sharp: Keep Your Brain Healthy


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