A first crossword or other puzzle probably did great things for your brain. If you can now zip through, the effect diminishes. Fernandez likened a 100th crossword puzzle to only exercising your right bicep. People who have struggled with and mastered a task must move on to other challenges to reap brain-enhancing benefits.
Scientists also know a lot about what tears a brain down — poor nutrition, stress, physical stress, disordered sleep, even dehydration.
One goal is to make the brain adaptive so you can take what you learn in one situation and apply it to another, said Phillip Tomporowski, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Mississippi who just co-wrote the second edition of "Exercise Psychology."
When researchers did a major review of interventions two years ago, physical activity — good old exercise — consistently provided long-term benefits for the executive functions, which include planning, keeping things in memory and adapting. "That's not to say it's a cure-all, but it shows more of an effect than computer-based mental games," Tomporowski said.
Good health and lifestyle habits matter. For instance, habitual running helps the brain. Variety in where you run, how fast and with whom boosts the impact, he said.
Physical exercise helps every age, starting with children's brain development. The impact is not just from moving, Tomporowski said, but moving with intention. "When it gets repetitive, it needs to be changed." He said kids are built to move in "bursts of activity." They benefit from games that are "intrinsically interesting and motivating." Loving physical activity can build strong brains as a lifelong process.
Not everyone's convinced all online games and puzzles touted as brain builders work. Still, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor who directs the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said games and video games "absolutely can make a difference." Some claim only first-person shooters are effective. She and colleagues found that even games as gentle as mah-jongg had a small benefit for the brain. Some games provide social connection, also important to brain health.
Young people have opportunity to counter things that weaken the brain, Whitbourne said. "A job that has a high degree of engagement will keep your intellectual function in better shape, whether there's a lot of complexity, decision-making, a certain amount of autonomy." If your job's not like that, find leisure activities that provide what's missing.
Cognitive strengths come from a mix of executive functions, like being able to think and plan, speed and mental agility. Knowledge is something you get from exposure to information, like reading a newspaper. There are different aspects to intelligence. You need a diet of mental exercises, said Whitbourne, who writes a blog on PsychToday.com.
Researchers seek many ways to help the brain stay healthy. A recent clinical trial at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center tested the NeuroAD medical device. It uses non-invasive electromagnetic stimulation of the brain along with cognitive training on a computer. The stimulation and the exercises together target specific brain regions affected by neurodegeneration. It agreed with trials in Israel that showed significant cognitive improvements.
Folks worry every memory slip spells disaster, Whitbourne said, but everyone has lapses. Instead, focus on keeping your mental abilities sharp. Since even those with severe dementia can improve, it's a good idea to never give up, she said.
Several experts described autopsies that clearly showed the shrunken brain, amlyoid plaques and ragged tissue left by Alzheimer's in individuals who didn't have a single symptom. You can delay the disease's effects.
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