We all want to keep our brains in top shape. But are crossword puzzles, online classes and the other such activities that we’ve been hearing about for years the best ways to do that? Not really.
Now: To improve memory and preserve overall cognitive function, the latest research reveals that it takes more than quiet puzzle-solving and streaming lectures.
Even more intriguing: Some activities that we once thought were time wasters may actually help build intellectual capacity and other cognitive functions.
To learn more about the most effective ways to keep your brain “buff,” Bottom Line/Health talked to Dr. Cynthia R. Green, a psychologist and a leading brain trainer.
A HEALTHY BRAIN
The most important steps to keep your brain performing at optimal levels are lifestyle choices…
• Getting aerobic exercise (at least 150 minutes per week).
• Maintaining a healthy body weight.
• Not smoking.
• Eating a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables and is low in refined sugar and white flour—two of the biggest dietary threats to brain health that have recently been identified by researchers.
Additional benefits are possible with regular brain workouts. In the past, experts thought that nearly any game or activity that challenges you to think would improve your general brain functioning.
What research now tells us: An increasing body of evidence shows that improved memory requires something more—you need to work against a clock. Games with a time limit force you to think quickly and with agility. These are the factors that lead to improved memory and mental focus. Among Dr. Green’s favorite brain workouts—aim for at least 30 minutes daily of any combination of the activities below…
BRAINY COMPUTER GAMES
Specialized brain-training computer programs (such as Lumosity, Fit Brains and CogniFit) are no longer the darlings of the health community. Formerly marketed as a fun way to reduce one’s risk for dementia, recent evidence has not supported that claim.
These programs do provide, however, a variety of activities that may help improve intellectual performance, attention, memory and mental flexibility. Lumosity and other programs are a good option for people who enjoy a regimented brain workout, including such activities as remembering sequences and ignoring distractions. Monthly prices range from $4.99 to $19.95.
Other options to consider trying…
• Action video games. These games were once considered “brain-numbing” activities that kept players from developing intellectual and social skills. Recent research, however, shows that action video games can promote mental focus, flexible thinking, and decision-making and problem-solving skills. Because these games are timed, they also require quick responses from the players. Good choices: World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls and Guild Wars, all of which involve role-playing by assuming the identity of various characters to battle foes and complete quests, often with other virtual players. These games are available in DVD format for Mac or PC and with an online subscription for virtual play. Caveat: An hour or two can be a brain booster, but don’t overdo it. Too much role-playing takes you away from real-life interactions.
• Free brain-boosting computer game for a cause. At FreeRice.com, you can answer fun and challenging questions in such subjects as English vocabulary, foreign languages, math and humanities. With each correct answer, the United Nations World Food Programme donates 10 grains of rice to a Third World country. To date, players have “earned” a total of nearly 100 billion grains of rice—enough to create more than 10 million meals. To increase the challenge: Set a timer so that you must work against the clock.
APPs FOR YOUR BRAIN
If you’d prefer to use an “app”—a software application that you can use on a smartphone or similar electronic device—there are several good options. Among the best fun/challenging apps (free on Android and Apple)…
• Words with Friends. This ever-popular game allows you to play a Scrabble-like game against your friends who have also downloaded the app on an electronic device. The game provides even more benefits if it’s used with the time-clock feature.
• Word Streak with Friends (formerly Scramble with Friends) is a timed find-a-word game. You can play on your own or with friends.
• Elevate was named Apple’s Best App of 2014. It provides a structured game environment that feels more like a test, focusing on reading, writing and math skills, than a game. Still, this timed app will give Apple users a good brain challenge.
If you’d rather not stare at the screen of a computer or some other electronic device for your brain workout, here are some good options…
• Tech-free games. SET is a fast-paced card game that tests your visual perception skills. Players race to find a set of three matching cards (based on color, shape, number or shading) from an array of cards placed on a table. Bonus: This game can be played by one player or as many people as can fit around the table. The winner of dozens of “Best Game” awards, including the high-IQ group Mensa’s Select award, SET is fun for kids and adults alike. Another good choice: Boggle, which challenges you to create words from a given set of letter cubes within a three-minute period. It can be played by two or more people.
• Drumming. Playing any musical instrument requires attention and a keen sense of timing. Basic drumming is a great activity for beginner musicians (especially if you don’t have the finger dexterity for piano or guitar). Even better: Join a drumming circle, which provides the extra challenge of matching your timing and rhythm to the rest of the drummers, along with opportunities for socialization.
Bonus: Research has demonstrated that some forms, such as African djembe drumming, count as a low-to-moderate-intensity activity that may reduce blood pressure, which helps protect the brain from blood vessel damage.
• Meditation. This practice improves cognitive function and sensory processing and promotes mental focus. Meditating for about 30 minutes daily has also been linked to greater blood flow to the brain and increased gray matter (associated with positive emotions, memory and decision-making). The benefits have even been seen among some people with early-stage neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
A good way to get started: Begin with a simple “mindful eating” exercise—spend the first five minutes of each meal really focusing on what you’re eating. Don’t talk, read the paper or watch TV…just savor the food. Eventually, you’ll want to expand this level of attention to other parts of your day. Such mindfulness habits are a good complement to a regular meditation practice.
• Coloring. If you have kids or grandkids, don’t just send them off with their crayons. Color with them. Even better: Get one of the new breed of coloring books with complex designs for adults. While there hasn’t been specific research addressing the brain benefits of coloring, this form of play has been shown to reduce stress in children, and it is thought to boost creativity and have a meditative quality. You can find coloring books made for adults at bookstores and art-supply stores.