Give Your Brain a Workout, Too!

by Barbara Milsk, M.A. and Andrea Kaplan, R. N.

Just as the muscles in our body need to be exercised, the brain needs to be stimulated to maintain its capacity for memory and recall. But to what degree, and how? Older adults often ask: Do I have to learn Sudoku to stay sharp? Will I have dementia if I don’t do crossword puzzles all the time? The easy answer to all of these questions is that any and all mental stimulation that is challenging and novel benefits brain health. Some activities are better than others. Timed activities and ones that use and strengthen multiple regions of the brain are particularly good. Language or music lessons are examples of the latter.

We can also maintain and improve our brain health by practicing memory techniques, which is not a new method. Rabbis of the Talmudic era used mnemonic techniques to remember the ten plagues. The Greeks used memory palaces, a technique continued by “world memory champions” today (see inset, page 15). Many older people use tools to remember their Torah portion from their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs to this day.

Total Memory Workout, by Memory Arts LLC, is an example of a professional older adult- based memory program. The accredited course is a multi-faceted interactive series that strives to educate and teach strategies for memory enhancement and is one of the few programs based on scientific research. Its founder, Cynthia Green, Ph.D., is a clinical professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and founding director of The Memory Enhancement Program at Mt. Sinai.

Total Memory Workout illustrates how we can maintain and improve our brain health by considering lifestyle choices. Dr. Green states, “By leading a brain-healthy lifestyle and exercising the intellectual skills we rely on to function effectively, we can stay sharp and potentially lower our dementia risk over our lifetime.”

The “steps” to maximum memory include Meet Your Memory; The Lifestyle Connection; Food for Thoughts; Train Your Brain; and Total Memory Maintenance.

It is a fact that memory changes as we age, but memory aging problems are not necessarily a prelude to Alzheimer’s disease, and loss of memory is not a normal part of aging. Many treatable conditions can cause memory loss: low levels of Vitamin B12 or Vitamin D, reduced thyroid function and depression.

It’s not all bad news though. Some mental capacities decline while others improve. As we age, we may be more susceptible to distraction, experience a decrease in processing speed or see a decline in motor skills. However, vocabulary, decision making, social experience, creativity and wisdom all improve with aging. We are better able to synthesize information and make sound judgments as we age.

The brain can also grow and be maintained. A recent study by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago saw that the rate of cognitive decline for people without dementia was reduced by 52 percent in people who regularly participate in mentally stimulating activities. Rush

University also found that a higher level of daily physical activity was associated with a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Research from the University of Illinois suggests that walking at any pace for forty minutes, three times per week, can increase performance on cognitive tasks.

You don’t need to purchase expensive software to enhance memory. Play games on your phone against the clock. Learn a poem. Juggle. Drive a different route home. Wear your watch upside down. Take a walk. All of these activities challenge your brain in different ways, improving total brain health. 


Memory Places

For more information on memory champions, their use of memory palaces, and the nature of the mind in general, see Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything."

Foer underwent a year of memory training and was elevated to the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship, a competition for memorizers. He was a creative and persistent user of Memory Palaces when he competed. Memory Palaces are visualizations of rooms in your home, work, etc., created in your mind with specific details called “memory pegs.” After imprinting specific rooms and their memory pegs in your Memory Palace, you can use them to associate disparate memory items you want to recover.