Tips from a brain scientist for staying mentally fit

There’s more to staying sharp than doing crosswords and sudoku, according to this Alzheimer’s prevention specialist.

I always promote preventative medicine as an important (though somewhat unsung) component of sustainability. Fending off illness before it has a chance to settle in saves the substantial resources used for medical care, so why not? Besides, who wants to get sick?

Diet and exercise go a long way in helping of prevent any number of wellness woes – and not surprisingly, they play a role in brain health as well. But aside from power walking and jumping jacks, many people work on mental exercises as well. We’ve been hearing for a while now about how doing puzzles, like crosswords and suduko, are an important part of staying sharp.

But in a recent story on NPR, Jon Hamilton notes that, “If you like sudoku, go ahead and play. But staying sharp means using many parts of your brain.”

In the piece, Hamilton writes about Jessica Langbaum, a specialist in Alzheimer’s prevention who has a doctorate in psychiatric epidemiology. Her thoughts on the matter are bit different than the usual advice to do puzzles and brain teasers.

“Just sitting down and doing Sudoku isn’t probably going to be the one key thing that’s going to prevent you from developing Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

Langbaum says that just going to work and doing a job may be the most important thing one can do.

“My job is my daily cognitive training,” says Langbaum. “While you’re still in the work force you are getting that daily challenge of multitasking, of remembering things, of processing information.”

In her years of work in the field, and as Principal Scientist at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, she has determined that puzzles and games aren’t the end-all because they generally focus on a single, narrow task. She compares it to just working one muscle in your body – that muscle will flourish, but overall fitness doesn’t improve.

That said, the more-vigorous brain training programs used in research studies are more promising because they are so much more demanding. But it remains unclear whether specific brain training can also prevent or delay Alzheimer’s, Hamilton writes, noting that new research “suggests that social interaction may be a better form of mental exercise than brain training.”

“People who have a lot of social interactions, particularly in mid-life, have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s dementia in later life,” Langbaum says. “There’s something about being around people that’s helpful for our brains.”

That said, for people who are no longer working and who may not be surrounded by friends and/or family, brain training and puzzles may be useful.

And the bottom line? “If you like crossword puzzles, do them,” she says. “But try something new. And trying something new that brings you enjoyment is key. Don’t do it if you don’t like it.” Sounds like smart advice to me.