In science, discovery continues to add details to our learning. Now we know that there’s a lot to be said beyond “do some crosswords” when it comes to brain training and staying sharp all your life. In fact, crosswords may not help.
Several studies between 2010 and 2013 reported to our joy that doing crossword puzzles might delay mental aging. Reporters hinted that simple games and puzzles might even hold off Alzheimer's disease.
That proved to be an overstatement. Next came more elaborate “scientific brain training” exercises.
Soon, companies like Luminosity attracted thousands of paying subscribers who did daily exercises. And then the doubters came.
Luminosity ended up paying a $2 million fine for false advertising. Later, a large-scale study showed that games of the sort online training companies were touting didn't work.
Still, the feeling remains that “use it or lose it” must have some truth to it. We all had classmates who weren't mental giants in high school, didn't get any sharper as they aged, and seemed old before their time.
We also know people who stay interested and interesting all their lives. The proverbial grandmother who is sharp as a tack, the elderly professor who misses nothing...
Our instincts are right.
A new paper in the British Journal of Medicine (BJM) explains why people who don't work their brains overly hard seem to go downhill faster while the curious and mentally active remain alert much longer.
Using Your Brain Keeps It Strong
Why might crosswords be of little help? Because if you already know how to do them, you are not presenting enough challenge to wake your brain up and force it to create new neural connections. If you never did crosswords, though, they could spark good brain activity.
The BJM study discovered that playing problem-solving games and learning difficult new things are a sort of insurance policy on mental acuity.
In the words of the study's lead researcher, Dr. Roger Staff: "These results indicate that engagement in problem-solving does not protect an individual from decline but imparts a higher starting point from which decline is observed and offsets the point at which impairment becomes significant."
The term for this advantage is “cognitive reserve.”
Some of the best examples come from the “Nun Study.” Scientists followed 678 nuns from the School of Notre Dame who were born before 1917.
The group included Sister Mary who was able to remember short lists, grasp explanations and recall recent events until the day she died at 101. She performed better than many people in their 60s, but an autopsy showed that she was well into Alzheimer’s when she died. The mental habits of her lifetime had served her well.
Sister Bernadette was even more impressive. She was much more alert than other nuns her age. But when she died at age 85 following a heart attack, her autopsy revealed a brain riddled with plaques and tangles of amyloid deposits typical of dementia.
Build Your Reserve and Stay Sharp
If braining training and lifelong mental sharpness is your goal, then you need more than crossword puzzles.
One idea… Try learning another language. It does not matter if you are up in years, won’t speak it fluently, and might not even use it. The training helps.
In a group of Alzheimer's patients, researchers found bilingual patients delayed the onset of Alzheimer's about four years compared to those who only spoke one language. Another study on 648 patients in India found that learning a second language delayed Alzheimer's by 4.5 years.
The patients in these studies had been bilingual since childhood. But Thomas Bak, who led the Indian study, thinks that learning a second language later in life may have the same benefits.
Bak is probably right because researchers at Lund University in Sweden found that learning a language when older actually led to brain improvements. They took MRI's that proved it.
Another good-for-the-brain activity is learning a musical instrument.
New hobbies that stretch your mental skills, challenging careers, and problem solving may all serve you well. The rules are simple. To get real cognitive protection, the activity must introduce something new to you and it has to be at least a little difficult to learn. Then you have to continue doing it and increasing your skill.
If it’s not music or language that appeals to you, then break out the chessboard. Take a walk and learn the names of the trees. Memorize a poem or Shakespearean speech.
If you’re a reader, step it up—try a real history book or something scientific that you will need some effort to read.
Drawing can be good for protecting memory.
Take a class at the local college.
And if you are working at a challenging job, you are lucky. If you’re retired, think about volunteering where those high-level skills can stay strong.