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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Six simple ways to help keep your brain in shape

Doing crosswords and other word-centric puzzles and games regularly may strengthen memory and concentration, and help keep Alzheimer’s at bay. (Handout / Tribune News Service)
Tribune News Service

Merl Reagle has words on the brain. The 62-year-old master crossword puzzle creator – who also starred in the crossword puzzle documentary Wordplay and had a cameo as himself on an episode of The Simpsons – is the type of person who likes to spout off anagrams in casual conversation.

“I’ve always found it funny that ‘schoolmaster’ anagrams into ‘the classroom,’ ” he says. “And have you ever noticed that ‘race car’ is the same in forwards and reverse?” He then informed us that there is only one other word that can be made from “Prevention” that uses all four vowels. (The answer, if you’re curious, is “pioneer.”)

If, like Reagle, you love crosswords and other word-centric puzzles and games, you’re in luck: Doing them regularly may strengthen memory and concentration, and help keep Alzheimer’s at bay.

Your brain contains neural pathways – called dendrites – that are like tree branches, says Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh.

When you encounter something novel and complex, your brain responds by generating new branches. Challenge your noodle all the time, and it “begins to look like a jungle – as opposed to a Caribbean island with one palm tree,” Nussbaum says. (Yep, this would be a rare case where a tropical island isn’t ideal.)

If crosswords don’t do it for you, try these five other ways to build up your brainpower.

1. Dust off your board games

Classic board games like Monopoly and Scrabble can help pump up your brainpower, Nussbaum says. (Reagle is a big fan of Boggle.)

2. Be a tourist

“When you travel to a different place, it’s going to be a new and complex environment for you,” Nussbaum says. And almost nothing challenges your brain like navigating a new and exotic locale, according to research linking travel to stronger cognitive health. If you can’t hop a flight to a far-off land, be a tourist in your own city by strolling through an unfamiliar neighborhood or visiting an art gallery opening. In general, novel experiences are going to engage your brain in healthy ways.

3. Find a new hobby

Whether it’s crafting or gardening, new hobbies challenge our brains in ways similar to foreign travel or learning a new language. All these tasks appear to help keep your brain young and may protect it from diseases like dementia, research shows.

4. Make a list

“Take out a blank piece of paper and write down three or four things you’re really good at,” Nussbaum says. “Then write down three or four things you’re not very good at.” Then work on practicing the things that are more challenging for you – think of those areas as being in serious need of some tree branch development, he says.

5. Grab your sneakers

Exercise is a well-established Alzheimer’s fighter. By improving blood and oxygen flow to your brain, physical activity can fortify the parts of your noodle that Alzheimer’s attacks, research shows.

6. Phone a friend

Your brain has a simple request, Nussbaum says: “It wants to be mentally stimulated and nourished, (and) to socialize with others.” Research shows that spending time with friends may keep you sharp and protect you from brain diseases. You may not realize it, but experts say that almost nothing engages and challenges your brain like social interaction.