Trying New Things to Keep My Brain Sharp

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Mom always did crossword puzzles in an effort to keep her brain sharp. With a trusty sharp No. 2 pencil at her side each morning, Mom would sip her cup of coffee and meticulously make her way through these intricate mazes made up of words. The same ability to work with the English language showed up when she played Scrabble. The family lore (according to my uncle) is that Mom was unstoppable in this board game, easily beating all competitors by finding the unique two-letter word that everyone else missed. That is, until Alzheimer's disease struck.


    After reading Jane Brody's article, "Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile," in the New York Times, I wonder if Mom might have missed the boat by focusing solely on using these word puzzles to keep her brain fit. Brody writes about maintaining memory through what scientists theoretically call "cognitive reserve," the brain's ability to develop and maintain extra neurons and the connections between them. The scientists believe that these connections may help the brain compensate for damage caused by dementia that happens with normal aging.

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    So how to build cognitive reserve? According to scientists, higher educational attainment is the key. And that doesn't have to mean going back to the classroom - it could mean choosing more intellectually demanding occupations and pursuing brain-stimulating hobbies. The researchers believe that a commitment to life-long learning is critical, as is a commitment to physical exercise. Perhaps Mom could have taken a stronger version of a daily "vitamin" to protect her brain if she had taken up more hobbies that used other parts of her brain (other than the area that is responsible for language) and started walking every day.


    Brody's article especially resonated with me because of my recent conversation with Bob. Describing how he was learning about sculpting, taking lessons in the Italian language and practicing marksmanship with a pistol, Bob kindly reminded me that research indicates that it's these types of new experiences that help keep the brain sharp.


    I found that I've been thinking a lot about our conversation in the ensuing weeks. I currently don't have the time to get engrossed in the long-term cool projects that Bob is pursuing since I hope to get back into the doctoral work that was put on hold due to my need to care for Mom. However, I find that I'm continuing to push myself in other more short-term ways, such as trying to be fairly regular in exercising (tennis, biking, and weight lifting), trying to learn to cook different cuisines, and watching foreign movies.


    And having followed in my mom's footsteps in my abilities with the English language (although I'm not up to her standard in completing crossword puzzles or winning in Scrabble), I realize that I need to throw in a few strenuous mental "cross-training" exercises in order to build my cognitive reserve.


    I've already thought of some fun ways to stretch these mental muscles after the doctorate is complete, but starting in 2008, I'll be focused on "cross-training" my brain in what for me (the former journalist) will be a very rigorous exercise - studying for the statistics portion of the doctoral exams. Wish me - and my brain - luck!


Published On: December 12, 2007