3 Commonsense Ways to Give Your Brain a Workout

Brain health has joined our daily lexicon, yet many people remain confused about the topic.
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Brain health has joined our daily lexicon, yet many people remain confused about the topic. Much of what research has shown to be beneficial to brain fitness jives with the messages we have all heard for preserving good health overall, such as exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight. While these concepts may seem a bit stolid and lack the seductive simplicity of a supplement or other imagined magic fix, the bulk of the science on brain health is actually strongest in the area of these lifestyle modifications (which in truth is quite good news, since these are all areas we can control and improve).

Yet what about doing something to give our brains a workout? Here is where I find much of the current hype about brain fitness has left folks in the dark as to what they are supposed to do. Does that new product on TV really work? Should you be joining a brain gym? And what exactly is the research behind all of this? While the science behind cognitive activity, memory performance and long-term brain health is still fairly young, there are some steps we can take to help curb our daily forgetfulness and potentially lower our dementia risk. Here's my three-pronged approach to understanding the "mind" side of brain health, along with some simple suggestions for getting started -- just don't forget to lead that brain-healthy lifestyle as well.

Skills. As we grow older, our intellectual abilities change. Some, such as inductive reasoning and emotional control, improve. However, other shifts feel somehow more seismic and capture our concern, including our ability to stay focused, to think quickly, to multitask and to remember new information (which, it turns out, they all support). It is this common slip in skills that underlies our much-dreaded groping for names and misplaced conversations.

While for many years research has suggested that we can maintain these skills through targeted training, only recently have such methods seen wider interest and support, in part due to the positive results of the ACTIVE study, a federally-funded trial looking at such interventions.

One of the best ways you can challenge the skills that underpin healthy daily memory performance is to play games against the clock. Such activities offer a great opportunity to challenge ourselves to pay attention, work fast and think nimbly -- after all, you can't beat the clock without doing so. Time-challenging activities can range from low-tech board games such as Boggle to computer-based programs that offer a customized workout, akin to hiring a personal trainer for your brain. Think twice before committing to anything costly, as the science supports improvement only along the specific skill area in which you train and questions remain regarding the impact such training has on everyday activity. On the whole, however, it seems that such skills training can boost daily performance and can be done in a way that is both inexpensive and fun besides.

Stretch. Numerous studies have found that people who remain intellectually engaged across their lifespan have a significantly reduced risk for dementia. Researchers at Rush University, for example, found that individuals who reported a high level of intellectual engagement were 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia.

It is unclear why such activities may reduce dementia risk. The current leading theory to explain this relationship is "cognitive reserve," which suggests that "stretching" our minds promote synaptic density and neurogenesis, which in turn gives us a bit more cushion, if you will, should memory loss strike. "Stretch" your brain by looking for new pursuits that keep you involved, get you to challenge your mind and think "out of the box." I love the advice of a gentleman who approached me after a lecture to tell me that he and his wife took on such a challenge as a New Year's resolution every year -- when we met, he'd just committed to learning guitar. A recent study even suggested that such activities may even delay the onset of memory loss in persons who go on to develop dementia.

Strategies. Want to stop wasting time looking for your keys or your glasses or rev up your recall for names? Try some simple strategies to make such things easier to remember. I am a huge fan of such techniques, which have been around since ancient times. While they will not lower your risk for memory impairment over the long term, memory strategies will go a very long way in helping you function more efficiently day-to-day. Use what I term "memory tools" -- they are the secret domain of all organized people, who do in fact remember better because of them. Try lists, memory places (where you always put things in the same location), notes and other similar strategies. Adopt easy, practical techniques to enhance memorization of things such as names, passwords or important numbers. Studies have shown such strategies to be effective. Even a simple strategy, such as finding a connection between the new information and something you already know, is a powerful way to make that recently acquired name or book title much more memorable.