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Put Your Mind to It

Research Shows That Mental Exercises Can Boost Brainpower, Just as Physical Workouts Can Make a Body More Fit

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 2, 2007; Page HE02

So you think you're losing your memory and your mind?

Join the club.

Fears about dementia are pervasive in American society, especially among baby boomers. And they are justified: The prevalence of Alzheimer's increases with every decade once people have passed retirement age, and a cure is still not in sight.

The idea of preventing Alzheimer's and other forms of mental decline is immensely attractive -- and there is some early evidence that this may be possible. Recent research, including an article published two weeks ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that boosting mental skills with simple exercises can help slow the rate of decline as people age.

A short series of mental exercises to boost memory, reasoning and the speed of processing skills not only made people better at those tasks than people who got no such training, but also seemed to be associated with better functioning years down the road when it came to activities of daily life, such as reacting to a traffic sign or reading the warnings on a bottle of pills.

The exercises we present here -- similar to those used in the study -- were provided by George W. Rebok, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They are not a prescription to avoid dementia. But consider them a start.

Exercising and challenging the mind seem to have the same effect on the brain as exercising and challenging the body, and mental exercises have the same basic requirements as physical exercise -- a commitment to regular workouts and to push yourself a little harder each time.

There are many expensive techniques on the market that offer to strengthen the mind, but most have not been empirically proven to work. Experts say the basic principle to remember in seeking out ways to strengthen the brain is that mental exercise -- like physical exercise -- is available to everyone at little or no expense: Just as anyone can go for a walk, do some sit-ups or stretch without costly equipment, everyone can find challenges in everyday life that can improve and challenge the mind.

If you like crossword puzzles, try puzzles that are a little harder. If you are a concert pianist, learn how to fix things around the house. If you are a high school dropout, pick up a calculus textbook. Try to get out of your comfort zone and ask your mind to do things that feel difficult. You will be surprised at how quickly you master new skills.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company