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What's Up Magazine

Train Your Brain: Exercise for Mental Health

Jan 10, 2011 08:15PM ● By Cate Reynolds

As a young woman, Mary Sherman always knew where to find her glasses: the last place she put them. But as she ages, remembering that “last place” is becoming more and more difficult. “Now, I tell myself, ‘I put my glasses right there,’ when I set them down,” the Millersville resident says. “It helps me remember.”

For the past several years, Sherman, 62, has incorporated brain exercises like verbal reminders, crossword puzzles, and even video games into her daily life to keep her mind fresh.

She’s not alone. For decades, people have stimulated their brains with everything from listening to classical music to brushing their teeth with the opposite hand. Yet recent studies show specific mental exercises are crucial when it comes to maintaining memory and keeping the brain fit.


The brain is like the body’s control center. Weighing only three pounds, the brain manages everything from thoughts and memory to speech and movement. When it’s healthy, it works quickly and is able to adapt. But as people age, so does the brain.

Simply put, “dementia” is a sign of the wear and tear on the brain and it is used as an umbrella term to describe diseases such as Alzheimer’s that cause memory loss and other cognitive problems. Almost half the population will have some degree of dementia by the time they are 80 years old, with Alzheimer’s and strokes as the most common causes.

There is hope for the aging brain, however, and it is found through mental exercise. Even in its senior years, the brain can grow new neurons. And throughout life, people can build what neurologists call a “cognitive reserve”—the brain’s ability to cope with brain injury.

A long-running study, begun in 1986, observed Roman Catholic nuns ages 75 to 106 to determine the causes and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, other brain diseases, and the mental and physical disability associated with old age. It found that the more educated nuns had fewer symptoms of cognitive decline and memory problems. It also found that nuns who had higher language skills had decreased risk for developing dementia.

In this case, the old adage rings true: If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Similar studies have shown people with college degrees have lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease. Those with college degrees who do get Alzheimer’s display fewer symptoms than those without degrees.


Numerous studies have shown physical exercise like brisk walking and swimming can help prevent dementia by reducing the risk of stroke and increasing blood flow to the brain. But the benefits of mental exercise can be harder to quantify.

For instance, a recent study found that the Internet might actually make people smarter, possibly building up cognitive reserve. UCLA scientists found Internet searching uses neural circuitry that’s not activated during reading but, interestingly, only in those with prior Internet experience. MRI results showed close to three times more brain activity in regular Internet searchers than those using it for the first time.

Other studies suggest people can cut their chance of developing dementia in half if they participate in stimulating leisure activities. Examples include:

• Working crossword, Sudoku, or jigsaw puzzles
• Learning a new language
• Playing musical instruments
• Playing chess
• Taking on crafting projects such as scrapbooking, working with modeling clay, quilting, sewing,  and needlework
• Playing card games
• Playing strategy-based video games

Additionally, most interactive video game console systems have mental exercise programs that incorporate math problems, reading comprehension, and memory skills, as well as physical exercise programs that people of all ages can play.

Mary Sherman’s favorite video game is the Nintendo DS Brain Age. “I’m not very good with math, so it really challenges me,” she says. “I find I also have to use my brain to figure out exactly what it is I’m supposed to do. That is a challenge in itself.”

Regardless of the method, neurologists say it’s important to maintain a variety of mentally stimulating activities throughout life. Your brain will thank you for it.

Allison Eatough is a freelance writer and former Annapolis resident. She would like to thank Neurologists Dr. Daniel Hexter and Dr. Sangjin Oh for their expertise and “brain power,” which contributed to the story.


Mayo Clinic researchers recently interviewed 1,300 people between the ages of 70 and 89. Of that group, 197 individuals had mild cognitive impairment and 1,124 were cognitively normal. Both groups answered questions about their activities within the past year and when they were between 50 and 65 years old.

The study found that reading books, playing games, participating in computer activities, and working on craft projects led to a 30 to 50 percent decrease in the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment. Additionally, individuals who participated in social activities and read magazines during middle age were about 40 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who did not participate in those activities.

We are delighted to do our part. 

10 steps to an optimal memory

Harvard Medical School has published a handy little list of behaviors to help us enhance or maintain our recall. Here are its 10 suggestions:

• Exercise
• Keep learning
• Don’t smoke
• Drink alcohol only in moderation
• Maintain a healthy diet
• Consider taking vitamins
• Get a good night’s sleep
• Be social
• Manage stress
• Protect your brain from impacts and toxins

For more information or a complete list of publications and resources available from Harvard Health Publications, visit


––Sarah Hagerty