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Brain Coach Answers: Aren’t crosswords and sudoku sufficient brain exercise?

Q: I do crossword puzzles and sudoku regularly. Why would I need brain fitness, isn’t what I’m already doing enough?

A: Great! What you’re doing is fun and can’t hurt. But nor is it complete. Recent recommendations made by a panel of experts reviewing a poll by the American Society on Aging stated: “A single activity, no matter how challenging, is not sufficient to sustain the kind of mental acuity that virtually everyone can achieve.”

Using your brain to solve creative challenges is excellent practice and will help slow down the effects of aging. The limitation with your current brain workout program is that it does not have enough variety or novelty to work out all your mental muscles. Have you ever seen the guys in the gym with the buff upper bodies supported by little chicken legs? The same thing can happen in your brain. Just as you crosstrain in your physical fitness routine (mixing cardio with strength training and flexibility) to get a balanced workout, you need to crosstrain your mental fitness to exercise your brain through motor coordination, emotional understanding, memory, focus and attention, sensory communication, language skills, and mental visualization.

Furthermore, how can you gauge your improvement if you don’t have a way to measure it? Using computer software to give you a baseline score, work out, and follow up test gives you a measure of your improvement. So basically, right now you are doing a highly focused workout using language and memory but with inconsistent challenge and limited feedback. A structured program should give you assessment, novelty, and performance-based challenge while (hopefully!) being fun. That mental stimulation can dramatically increase the rate of neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons and the connections between neurons.

A recent randomized controlled double-blind study just published in August “demonstrates that intensive, plasticity-engaging training can result in an enhancement of cognitive function in normal mature adults.” As shown in past studies, enhancement of cognitive function leads to learning or neurogenesis. So keep doing crosswords and sudoku, especially if you enjoy them, but don’t neglect the rest of your brain!

Your questions and comments are welcome!

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