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Facts for All Ages

Mental Challenges Help with Memory

Recently I came across an article in one of the local papers titled "No support behind brain games." I have to say that my first instinct was one of panic. I currently facilitate monthly Wits Fitness brain exercise classes in four different locations and many others by request. What will my class participants think of this? But then I read the entire article and found that the information was something that I knew about all along. A review of the studies put out by brain-training companies that are trying to prove that their products improve memory and cognition in daily life showed no evidence to support this. The games that are played as part of computerized brain training programs only help people get better at playing those games – it does not transfer to real life scenarios like helping one remember to take their medicine or remember someone's name. Whew! I had already been sharing that information with my class participants for a while now.

So what does help with memory and cognition? I always emphasize that exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep, socialization and stress management are all major contributors for a healthy brain. But mentally challenging yourself with new and complex activities does also help with memory and overall cognition. Does this mean you need to do crosswords, Sudoku or seek-a-word puzzles each day? Not necessarily. Brain exercise is more than just paper/pencil activities, but encompasses any activity that actually requires a person to actively think to perform it. Anytime you are learning something new like a language, playing an instrument or a dance move, it can cause the production of new brain cells or neurons and the growth of new pathways between these neurons, improving communication between them.

Do you like to play cards? What about board games like Chess, Mastermind, Jenga, Mind Trap and even Battleship? Do you like to work in the garden? Or travel? Or are you crafty and like to knit or create other projects? All of these activities promote mental sharpness and are considered exercise for the brain as long as they are not too easy or something you do on auto pilot. Also, if you pursue mental activities that incorporate some of the other healthy brain contributors like socialization or physical exercise, you will get more "bang for your buck" in terms of how beneficial the activity will be for you.

Several of our family life educators facilitate Wits Fitness brain exercise classes. To see if any are being held in your area, just go online to the Extension website at and find your local office and check out their calendar. Also check out the Family Files archives for additional articles about brain health.

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