Boost Your Brain Power

Kick up your mental agility with these tips

ramp up your brain power

Photo by: Lisa Spindler Photography/Getty

Your brain isn’t a muscle, but it exists with the same credo: Use it or lose it. And as with a muscle, if you exercise your brain, it’s going to get strong and supple. “Brain training is analogous to physical workouts,” says brain researcher Sherry L. Willis, Ph.D., a professor in the department of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. “You have to cross-train—work different parts of your brain—and keep adding new challenges.”

Like physical exercise, brain training shouldn’t be a no-pain-no-gain situation. If it’s too hard, it will be frustrating and stressful, which is no good for recall. Nor should it be too easy—that will only lead to boredom and a lack of intellectual enhancement. But choose the right amount of mental stimulation, and it will create fresh connections in your brain. “You can actually generate new cells in the hippocampus,” says Peter Snyder, Ph.D., professor of clinical neurosciences at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University. Those new cells build cognitive reserves that are important for creating new memories and may protect against memory loss—even dementia—later in life. Here’s how to make your brain more fit:

Live a more thought-provoking life Highly educated people tend to have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s, mostly likely because education has gotten them in the habit of being mentally active. Yet you don’t need an advanced degree to get your brain moving. For instance, in the Bronx Aging Study, men and women ages 75 to 85 who regularly participated in six activities—reading, writing, playing board or card games, joining in group discussions, doing crossword puzzles and playing music—were less likely to show symptoms of dementia.

Taking classes can also be a brain booster, particularly if you learn a second language. Research from the University of Toronto suggests that being bilingual builds brain reserves that may help keep Alzheimer’s symptoms at bay for as long as four years. One reason may be that using two languages strengthens the portion of the brain that helps you focus and ignore distractions.

Game your gray matter Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, mazes, computer games, brain teasers, playing the guitar—anything that gets you using your noodle may help keep your brain fit, and it will certainly be fun trying. You will likely get the biggest cognitive boost by using both the left and the right hemispheres of the brain. Right-brain exercises include reading maps, working mazes, playing an instrument and drawing (the right brain is more involved with spatial tasks). Left-brain exercises heighten your verbal and logic skills and include doing crossword puzzles and playing other types of word games.

Puzzles and games that have you working against the clock, like Boggle, Scrabble or the memory game Simon, may give your brain an extra lift by forcing you to pay attention, work quickly and think flexibly.