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Boost Your Brain With Improv Games to Live a Longer, Happier Life

Science says ditching fear unlocks creativity, increases optimism

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Freestyle+ founder Anthony Veneziale, left, actor Utkarsh Ambudkar, center, and champion beatboxer Kaila Mullady, right, team up on an improvisational rap during CES.

Can freestyle rap music and improvisational games improve your confidence, creativity and mindfulness, and help you feel less socially isolated? And can the improv help stem cognitive decline, a major concern for many as they get older?

So you’re probably not going to join an improv troupe later in life, much less become an accomplished rapper. But a key part of living well and nurturing your brain health as you age is to stay mentally engaged and relaxed through what AARP Research refers to as meaningful play.

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Studies show that improvisational gameplay can train the brain to open up.

“A brain that plays games 20 minutes a day stays healthy for a lot longer,” said Anthony Veneziale, cochief executive officer and founder of Freestyle+. His Flowzone gaming engine is designed to help people flex their mental muscles through the science of improv and music.

Play games galore

AARP Games has popular online arcade, crossword, mah-jongg, solitaire and trivia games. Some are for members only.

AARP Staying Sharp, a member benefit, includes a wide variety of games to test your focus, recall and word skills.

Veneziale, himself an improvisational freestyle rapper and Tony Award winning entertainer, was speaking about brain health and the role these games can play during a panel at the CES tech trade show in Las Vegas this week along with AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, actor Utkarsh Ambudkar from the CBS sitcom Ghosts, and moderator Guy Raz of NPR.

“How do we keep people mentally alert and active?” Jenkins asked. About 12,000 people a day are turning 65 in the U.S., and 85 percent of older adults want to age in their own homes.

Freestyle+, part of AARP’s AgeTech Collaborative of start-ups, is attempting to answer that by developing a gaming engine that first learns how you play and then tries to serve up games that fit your profile. Then, through gameplay, you’re pushed to meet goals and, in some instances, combat fears.

Some 900 games exist in the improv community, and Freestyle+ is in the process of digitizing core elements from many of them, Veneziale says.

Say your goal is to feel less isolated. Freestyle+ might put you in intergenerational “squads” that let you play with others and may help you appreciate and understand the challenges of the sandwich generation.

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Talking brain games at CES: NPR’s Guy Raz, left; AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins; Freestyle+ founder Anthony Veneziale; and actor Utkarsh Ambudkar.
Roger Kisby for AARP

“I’m going to say ‘yes’ to whatever my parent is going through,” Veneziale says. “Let’s say it’s Alzheimer’s, and let’s say that day they think they’re on a boat. We think for some reason we have to ground them in our reality. Well, as an improviser, the best thing you can do is say, ‘Yes, and’ to somebody. ‘Yes, and we’re on this boat with you.’ It doesn’t hurt you to say ‘yes’ to their reality. And we help to train you to do that.”

To some degree, the idea behind such games is to get comfortable being uncomfortable, fearful of what you can’t control. Playing games is one of the key drivers at AARP’s own website.

“We have been very intently focused on working with the gaming community to design games, particularly around brain health, to keep the brain active and engaged,” Jenkins says.

Given his involvement, it is no surprise that gaming is a part of Ambudkar’s daily routine.

“I do this because I have to,” the actor says. “It’ just like going to the gym or drinking water. It’s that important. If we can share that with everyone, it’s invaluable."


Video: Woman Uses Improv to Bring Joy to People with Dementia

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