Which Brain Exercises Improve Memory Best?
The exercises you do to keep your mind sharp may not be enough to improve memory over time, but new research from the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness reveals better ways to boost your brain health.
By Lauren Gelman
Can a crossword puzzle a day keep dementia away?
If you can breeze through the Sunday puzzle, you’re not doing your mind any favors. That’s because the key to a vibrant, healthy brain includes challenge and novelty. One study from 1999 found that gaining more experience doing crossword puzzles didn’t offset the effects of aging when it came to mental tests of vocabulary and reasoning. According to SharpBrains, crossword puzzles can be stimulating, but after the first dozen or so puzzles, the activity doesn’t offer enough variety or difficulty to engage your whole brain.
Improve your memory: Keep your brain fit with new activities that test various skills; a financial analyst may want to grab a paint brush and a canvas, for example. Even playing different types of puzzles—a crossword today, Sudoku tomorrow—is better than doing the same type over and over again.
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Should I take supplements touted to “support brain health”?
A 2010 report from the National Institutes of Health, which examined the results of multiple studies, found high levels of evidence that the herb Ginkgo biloba is not associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Other studies have found no reduction in cognitive decline from purported memory-enhancing vitamins and antioxidants such as B12, E, C, and beta carotene.
Improve your memory: Your overall eating pattern, rather than popping specific supplements, appears to play an important role in how well your brain ages. Several studies have found the Mediterranean diet—rich in olive oil, vegetables and fruits, fish; moderate in alcohol consumption; and low in saturated fats from meat and dairy—to be linked to a reduced risk of dementia (as well as heart disease). One important study from 2009 even found that healthy people who followed this way of eating for five years lowered their risk of developing an early form of dementia, and those who already had an early form of dementia helped lower the chances of their condition progressing.
If I skip the booze, do I save brain cells?
As SharpBrains notes, it’s clearly known that excessive drinking causes brain damage. While there is no consensus on what low to moderate consumption means for your brain's health, one review of multiple studies found that men and women who drank some had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s compared to non-drinkers. Experts think it may be due to alcohol’s role in cardiovascular health, which is boosting “good” HDL cholesterol and reducing the risk of blood clots.
Improve your memory: Experts probably would not recommend starting a drinking habit, but light drinking (one a day for women, two for men) is likely protecting—or at least not harming—your mental muscle.
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Should I play video games that claim to be “brain-boosting”?
Just because a video game is marketed to promote better memory or improved brain function doesn’t mean it’s any better for you than others. Scientists have actually found that “action” video games such as Medal of Honor or Call of Duty can improve vision and attention. Strategy games like Rise of Nations improve working memory, according to a 2008 study by Arthur Kramer, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois.
Improve your memory: Before you buy special video games, exercise your brain with the mainstream ones you or your kids may already be playing. While no conclusive study has shown that playing video games provides a long-term protective effect, reports SharpBrains, “they can be an excellent vehicle for novelty, variety, and challenge.”
Do I need to work out if I'm not trying to lose weight?
We so closely associate fitness with losing weight that it’s easy to forget what a profound effect it can have on your brain. Exercise seems to boost levels of growth factors that support the survival and growth of neurons (brain cells), and blood vessels to provide oxygen and fuel to the brain. According to SharpBrains, physical exercise actually slows down the brain shrinkage we all experience starting in our forties; aerobic movement in particular can increase the number of neurons and the connections between neurons. One 2010 study found that a person’s physical activity level could predict his brain size almost a decade later: the more exertion, the larger the brain volume.
Improve your memory: For optimal brain health, scientists recommend aerobic workouts that get your heart pumping, like a brisk walk or bike ride, for a minimum of three, 30- to 60-minute sessions a week.
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