Mental Gymnastics

Keeping your mind fit

What is meant to be the ultimate compliment, "He has forgotten more than most people will ever know," is actually a tragic circumstance. What we know has a lot to do with who we are, how others perceive us, and our sense of self. Perhaps this is why even the occasional lapse in memory tends to upset us. It threatens our identity, our vitality, our youth.

"What happens, and no one really wants to talk about it," says board-certified neurologist Laura Banks, "is that around the age of 20 we start losing about 0.1 percent of our brain volume every year. After 50 years, it starts making a difference, causing difficulties with brain functions such as concentration and word recall."

The brain, says Banks, is a type of muscle; and, like every other muscle, if you don't use it you'll lose it. Evidence indicates that you can keep your mind agile if you keep it active. Reading and watching nature shows on TV, however, are a little too passive for the kind of workout that will invigorate the brain.

"Social interaction is helpful," says Banks, "as are card games such as bridge or poker, and also chess - anything that involves pattern recognition. For word recognition, Scrabble® is wonderful. You want to engage in anything that will stimulate thinking; but it has to be something you enjoy or you won't do it."

Perhaps the biggest issue with any kind of exercise is finding something you like to do. And it just so happens that one of the best things you can do to improve memory is to engage in physical exercise. According to the Mayo Clinic, researchers have found that exercise can increase brainpower, help ward off aging-related memory loss, and maybe even prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Once again, we're not talking about passive exercise, but about vigorous, heart-pumping, aerobic activity that enhances blood flow throughout the body and into the brain. Which doesn't mean you have to train for a marathon or take up mountain biking. Even small amounts of regular exercise, say a spirited stroll along the beach three times a week, can make a difference in your brain power.