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Mind games may keep your brain in shape

By: Natalie Otis, Journal Correspondent
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Keeping the brain sharp is all the hub with baby boomers these days. Because of their numbers, what boomers want has a dominating impact on American culture. And what boomers want is to be sharp as a tack in their twilight years. There are about 78 million boomers and the latest study of them, released by the Natural Marketing Institute at a conference on aging, states that brain fitness is emerging as a hot topic among boomers. "I can see that," said Auburn's Dr. Mark Vaughan. Vaughan is a general practice physician who has clients both young and old. "What has happened is that this group is taking care of their aging parents who are dealing with Alzheimer's and they are beginning to ask themselves, 'What is there for me?'" he said. "I tell them that it is important at any age to keep the mind active. An active mind seems to be linked to a healthy mind." Vaughan has reviewed studies that have linked less TV watching and more game playing or reading with staving off mental decline and he believes in the logic and the evidence. "The experts believe that by exercising our mind daily, we can slow the development of age-related memory problems," he said. "We know that physical activity helps reduce physical decline so it makes sense that the same would be true for the brain." Hoping to get in on the latest craze for the vast boomer market, game manufacturers are taking advantage of the hype over brain fitness. Web sites like SharpBrains (www.sharpbrains.com) and PositScience (www.postitscience.com) offer online brain fitness programs that promise to boost mental sharpness and cognitive skills. Even Nintendo has gotten into the market with its version. Nintendo's game "Brain Age" features puzzles as a way to stimulate the brain. Vaughan says he hasn't gone as far as to recommend online gaming or buying the newest Nintendo, however, he does recommend traditional activities like crossword, jigsaw or Sudoku puzzles. Experts also say it is helpful to play games such as Scrabble, cards, chess or checkers. Learning a new language, taking up playing a musical instrument, starting a new hobby or simply reading are also linked to better brain health. "Working the body, too, is important to mental health," Vaughan said. "Research shows that people who are physically active have better memories." Beverly Bower, who is part of the senior Keenager group at Auburn Presbyterian Church, said she has recently tackled the task of getting her brain into shape. The church sponsored a three-part seminar "Brain Gain" that has made seniors aware of the importance of brain games and plans to hold more in the future. "Studies have validated this, that yes, you can stimulate the brain," she said. Bower has taken two of the three classes offered and says she has already experienced the benefits of exercising her brain. "It really works," she said. One of the games she was asked to play at a recent class proved to her to be an instant success in getting her mind moving. She was given a clue like "teenager" and asked to think of a word that was associated with it that ended in "ent." The answer? "Adolescent." "It was hard," she said. "We were given 20 of them and in the middle we went to a sheet of numbers and had to find certain numbers and circle them - this was supposed to help stimulate the part of the brain we needed to make the word associations. Sure enough when I went back to the list of 'ent' words - by golly I could think of more." Other games Bower has taken up to stimulate her brain include brushing her teeth with the opposite hand and eating with the opposite hand. "It is hard," she said. "You don't realize how hard, till you try." Like Bower said, scientific research backed by organizations such as the American Society on Aging is suggesting that it is possible to improve brain fitness at any age. And like with any physical activity, the work might be hard, but the payoff could be big. Natalie Otis is a freelance writer. She can be reached at natalieotis@gmail.com.