Want a Muscular Memory? You can Train Your Brain with Board Games, Crossword Puzzles and Sudoku

The timeworn adage “use it or lose it” has taken on new meaning for people aiming to combat Alzheimer’s, an irreversible and progressive brain disease.

“A few minutes of challenging mental exercise each day just might help preserve what we cannot afford to lose,” said Dr. Barry Bittman, medical director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center. “Our mind is too precious to waste. It’s not too late to nurture one of our most precious gifts.”

As many as 5.3 million people live with the disease in the United States. According to The Alzheimer’s Association, someone falls victim to the disease every 70 seconds, a rate that may increase to 454,000 new cases per year by 2010.

Dr. Bittman, a neurologist, suggests that the earlier a person works to improve their memory, the greater their chances of inhibiting and delaying the onset of memory loss and mental illnesses.

Along with a proper diet, exercise, and stress reduction activities, Dr. Bittman strongly encourages daily “mental workouts.” Board games, crossword puzzles, and word search activities have all been found to help increase and improve memory.

“Sudoku, a Japanese logic-based puzzle is another well-known method used to help improve memory,” said author of Total Memory Workout, Dr. Cynthia R. Green.

The puzzle consists of a nine- by -nine grid with three- by- three boxes. The objective of the game is to fill each column, row, and box only once with a number ranging from one to nine.

Aside from being widely available in newspapers, Sudoku puzzles are now gaining popularity online, are being sold in books, and are even being used in hospitals.

Patients who have suffered from a stroke or other brain injuries are sometimes given daily Sudoku puzzles to help with cognitive therapy.

Brain Age, a popular video console game was first introduced in 2005. The game, which is compatible with Nintendo DS handhelds, contains various tests dealing with counting, calculating, and memorization.

“I’ve played Brain Age before and I think it can be really helpful,” said Bianca Ashley, a sophomore political science major. “But recently, I have been more interested in the iPhone’s ‘Brain Toot’ application. Since my phone is with me at all times, it has become more convenient.”

Ashley has found that Brain Toot helps improve her memory and skills in areas such as math, comprehension and critical thinking.

According to research conducted by The Social Cognitive Laboratory at North Carolina State University, writing on a daily basis can improve attention and the ability to concentrate. Cognitive psychologists refer to these abilities as “working memory” and have found scientific evidence that working memory leads to better grades, especially in college students.

“To help me improve my memory, I usually write down what I have to do,” said Whitney Hosten, a sophomore classics major. “Besides writing everything down in a planner, I exercise often too. Whether it’s Yoga or running, I almost always have a clear mind afterwards and can focus more.”

Dr. Eva Stephens, an assistant professor in Howard University’s College of Pharmacy, Nursing, and Allied Health Sciences, believes that the most beneficial solution to a healthy body and spirit is to maintain a healthy diet, to exercise, and to spend time with positive individuals.

“I recommend eight hours of sleep per day for everyone. It is important to eat three meals per day, including breakfast,” said Stephens. “The heaviest meal should be lunch. You should also be mindful to limit foods high in fat and carbohydrates.”

Health Diaries, an online health forum reported that foods that are red or purple in color contain the brain-boosting phytochemical, anthocyanin. Fruits such as blueberries, apples, and grapes contain high levels of anthocyanin and quercetin, an antioxidant shown to protect against Alzheimer’s disease. Vegetables like spinach, onions, and beets are rich in folic acid, which acts as an insulator for brain cell membranes.

The forum also states that fish such as salmon and herring, along with walnuts, almonds, and flax seeds all have substantial amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, unsaturated acids that are beneficial for the heart and mind.

“I try to incorporate healthy foods into my diet as much as I can,” said sophomore design major, Sadia Thomas. “When I can afford to shop at organic markets, I tend to do so. Once you begin eating foods that are good for you, the difference is noticeable. You feel better and perform better as well.”

Stephens suggested common herbs and supplements used to promote energy and memory are St. John’s wort, Kava root, and Ginkgo biloba, but acknowledged that there is no scientific proof that these alternative medicines improve health.