Challenge your brain to help ward off dementia


A common question I am asked is, “Can crosswords really prevent dementia?”

Dementia is a complex condition with many causes — some of which are reversible while others are progressive. It would be very convenient to have a specific activity, such as playing crossword puzzles, to stop cognitive decline in later life – that simply is not the case. The truth is much more complicated, which means there is no simple answer.

Think of the brain as a muscle. When it is regularly used or “exercised,” it becomes stronger and more resilient. A key to brain “exercises” is that the activities are challenging and novel. Consider the following that have been demonstrated by researchers to fit this description.

1. Learn a musical instrument. If you already play, choose a new musical piece that is challenging, set a goal to perfect it by a certain date, and perform it on that date.

2. Perfect a hobby. This may be a current hobby or something you were involved with in the past. The key is to keep it challenging. If a hobby is cooking, preparing a familiar recipe is not a challenge. Instead, choose a recipe that requires new techniques, equipment or ingredients. Consider hobbies that you have always wanted to try out and find a class you can take to learn more.

3. Memorize! Did you memorize a poem in school that you don’t quite remember? Rememorize it and recite to friends or family at your next gathering. Commit a few telephone numbers to memory rather than relying on a phone’s programming to do the remembering for you. Learn and share some jokes or songs that you enjoy.

4. Learn a foreign language. Those who know two or more languages have a lower risk of developing dementia than those who just know one language. Look for community classes and then identify strategies to practice what you are learning with others. Also consider different strategies for practicing the language — speaking, writing and listening.

5. Move. Getting the heart pumping is good for the heart and the brain. But remember that it needs to be a challenge. It could also mean choosing a new activity that requires learning and practicing new skills. For example, social dancing, hula, tap-dancing, low-impact group aerobics, group yoga or tai chi.

6. Thought-provoking games. The key to games that are brain healthy is that you are constantly challenged. So if you love Sudoku and always work on puzzles that are easy, it is no longer thought provoking so move up to moderate puzzles. If crosswords are your thing, step up the difficulty so that it is a challenge. Consider learning a new game and practicing it with others.

To learn more about activities that are fun and challenge the brain, join the Brain Health workshop sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association and UH Extension on June 27 from noon to 1 p.m. in the Community Services Building on UH-Maui College Campus. The workshop will focus on 15 brain-bending activities that are fun and have been shown in research to correlate with a lower risk of dementia.

To register for this workshop, email Christine Spencer of the Alzheimer’s Association at cespencer@alz.org or call her at (808) 591-2771, ext. 8235.

* Heather Greenwood Junkermeier is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Intergenerational and Aging Programs. “Aging Matters” covers topics of interest to the aging Maui community and appears on the third Sunday of each month.