Save your Brain

Brain Teasers, They’re Not Just For Coffee Breaks Anymore

(Knucklebones, 2006)

“It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power.” This simple phrase is nothing new – indeed, hordes of Reader’s Digest aficionados have been devouring the magazine’s puzzles for years.  But studies now conclusively show the old, iconic adage to be true, and perhaps even a life-saver.

It’s simple, really.  Mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise.  “Work the body and work the mind” has become a mantra for the aging population – and we all are, from the moment we’re born.  With more folks than ever now leaping beyond their 80s and into their 90s and even the golden 100s, it’s time to sit up and listen.  It’s never too early to begin a brain-saving regimen that really is just fun and games.

The old ways of thinking posited that living to “old age” was simply aligned to the graceful acceptance that the body weakens and the mind deteriorates.  Mental decline was simply another part of the process.  “You’re ninety-five, hurrah for you!”  But you can’t remember that your glasses are perched on the top of your forehead or what day of the week it is?  Well…..”you’re ninety-five, hurrah for you!”

New studies into healthy brain aging show that the above doesn’t need to be the norm.  Although there are plenty of degenerative neurological brain diseases – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia – that may or may not be helped by mental exercise, for most of us, simply stretching the mind can stretch our faculties farther than ever before.

There has always been a section of the population that has aged well, continued to lead healthy, productive, intellectually stimulating lives long past the time when a chair, blanket and cup of cocoa would have been the daily routine.  Researchers wanted to know why.

To find the answer, they developed the “longitudinal aging study.”  One of the best known, the MacArthur Study, gathered some 1,200 seniors, from their 70s through their 80s, with high mental acuity, and tracked them for a decade.  The results were surprising.

Almost all of the study subjects shared some common practices, including remaining consistently physically active, and maintaining a positive outlook for problem solving.  Fair enough, and it all makes sense, really, if you think about it.  But there was something that the researchers discovered that was more interesting.

They realized that almost all of the participants remained highly mentally active as well; doing crossword puzzles daily, playing chess and Scrabble, working on crafts and hobbies.  And by using their brains, they were bypassing the “normal” deterioration of grey matter, and bulking up their senses as well.

Buy why does this work?   “When you play chess or study a foreign language or work a crossword puzzle, individual brain cells, called neurons, pick up their pace.  The mental work triggers neurons to grow, seek out and form connections with other brain cells.  This increase in the web like complexity of the cells ultimately sharpens mental function.

“Not surprisingly, avoiding brain strain sets the stage for a flabby mental muscle, experts say.  Brain cells that aren’t stimulated, work less efficiently.  In other words, when it comes to the brain, it’s use it or lose it.”  1

It’s hard to escape the myriad advertisements on television for drugs, compounds, vitamins and methods for extending longevity.  And while all these have their own, and possibly good, place in the process, when it comes to tapping resources for extending longevity and leading a more meaningful life, longer, fortunately, doesn’t need to be quite so confusing.

According to the National Institute Of Health, the best brain –exercising activities are “dancing, board games, playing musical instruments, crossword puzzles and reading.”

So then, let’s start with the easiest of them all, the ubiquitous crossword puzzle.  Your morning newspaper takes care of that.  Start with the easy puzzles on Monday, feel good about your accomplishments and keep working the words all week long.  If you’re lucky enough, your local broad sheet may even include the mother of all puzzles – the New York Times’ Sunday crossword.  Make it harder, use a pen!

And if that’s not enough to stoke your neurons, look in your magazines or, even better, venture out of the house for a little physical exercise, to find literally thousands of crossword puzzle books – from the supermarket checkout, to the drugstore to book emporiums, the variety is endless.  There are even crosswords that are specifically geared to work your brain – becoming, in a sense, your own personal trainer.

Of course, puzzles and on-paper word games are just the tip of the iceberg.  Anything that stimulates the cognitive receptors in the brain will do.  Board games also have the added benefit of providing that other classic brain-building resource – social interaction. With the resurgence of game-nights and game clubs it’s easier than ever to end an evening of wining and dining with a rousing round of Scrabble, Apples To Apples, Chess, The AMAZE-ing Labyrinth, Yahtzee, or even any number of the games annually selected by Mensa as leaders in the field.

While nearly any game provides the needed stimulation, there are a number of companies that have the long-standing tradition of tailoring games specifically for boosting brain power, and Cranium stands as one of the industry leaders.  Formed in 1998 by Richard Tait and Whit Alexander, the goal of Cranium from the beginning was to create a lifestyle brand that would “enliven people’s lives.

With a catchphrase of “Everyone Shines,” their goal was to “bring people together through laughter, discovery, and opportunities to shine.”  From this simple belief, they developed Cranium, a game that has been championed by “passionate Craniacs everywhere — including Julia Roberts, Mike Myers, and Drew Barrymore.  It quickly became the fastest-selling independent board game in history.

“Today, they craft a wide variety of Cranium products to celebrate the full range of everyone’s natural abilities. Kids and adults of all ages shine as they create works of art and imagination, perform hilarious feats, discover fascinating new things, and connect with friends and family. Each product reveals unique talents in fun and engaging ways. With Cranium, Everyone Shines!” 2

Of course, many of the above-mentioned games work on the visual/language centers of the brain.  So by all means go ahead – live it up with language!  But studies have also shown that it’s important to give the aging brain a challenge.  And to do so fully, the key is to work-out in a way that’s opposite to an individual’s norm.  For example; if you spend all day working through logarithms and statistical charts, grab the Scrabble or work some word-find games.  Conversely, if your strong suit is language – try Sudoko or other challenging numerical tricks.

By changing the way you need to think, need to reason and need to solve problems, you are doing your brain a greater service than you’d expect.  This kind of shake-up causes the brain to rewire itself, work harder to connect the dots, and ultimately, create new pathways for the transmissions to travel.

Of course, the ultimate goal isn’t to drive yourself crazy – that carries its own detrimental baggage!  But it does pay to get outside of the box, to take a little stroll on the wild side from time to time, and who knows, you might even find a little stretch to your liking.

It’s easy to find excuses to avoid exercise.  Most exercise.  All the time.  As a society, we have been molded into the cushions of our devil couches, with the remote control on constant flip mode, hoping to catch some flotsam and jetsam that will lull us into a sense of relaxation.  That relaxation comes at a price, however, and one that isn’t easily recognizable.

Aging and the loss of mental agility are all too often concerns that many put off “until tomorrow.”  Again, though, aging is a process that spans cradle to grave, and it’s never too soon to start playing games – real ones, for fun!  These studies have given the commercial market more choices than ever before, in so many mediums.  From print and paper, to books and board games, and on beyond those “old fashioned” ways into the nearly unfathomable depths of the Word Wide Web, it’s easy to become involved, get mentally active, and most importantly, stay that way.

In a study published in June, 2003, the New England Journal Of Medicine reported that “researchers tracked 469 people aged 75 to 85 for up to 21 years.  None of those who participated had dementia at the start.  People who participated the most in leisure activities – including reading, playing board games, playing music instruments….were at 63 percent lower risk of being diagnosed with dementia.”

The moral here is easy.  Feed your brain. Now.  It’s like opening an IRA for your mind, deposit now, and reap the benefits later – without being taxed!  What could be easier, a no-brainer if you will, than that?  Take the challenge, accept the dare, throw down your gauntlets and get on board.

As a footnote, an aside apropos of everything, there is a personal lesson learned here. Just for giggles,  I asked a late-50-something-year-old woman in my family (who shall remain nameless, but she knows who she is!) who rarely played games, to spend a few months doing the daily crossword puzzle to test the theory that benefits can be reaped immediately.  Eagerly checking in with her to collate the results of this completely non-scientific study, I was greeted with just two words.

“I forgot.”

1 Health and You, July 22, 2004

2 The Cranium Story –


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