If the right kind of mental exercise promotes a healthy mind, the absence of mental stimulation may have an equally harmful effect on the brain, by allowing neurons to atrophy and die.
One of the worst things you can do for brain health is to watch a lot of television, Soas says. It isn't that TV by itself is so bad, because brain-wave studies have basically shown you go into neutral, almost a sleeping state. But other studies show TV watchers are sitting down eating high-fat, high-salt junk food and not exercising mind or body.
It's so bad that Case Western plans to study whether people who contract Alzheimer's watched more TV throughout life than healthy seniors.
Katz is a little more sanguine about TV. "The thing is to recognize TV for what it is, not so much to avoid it as to treat it like you would treat a martini or a beer after work. It's something to relax with, and all of us need to do that."
But Katz is down on the Internet, at least the kind of endless Web-surfing many people engage in. "Spending hours isolated from other people on the Internet doesn't utilize a lot of the kind of things that we think would stimulate new pathways in your brain. Social context is very important."
Not surprisingly, there are even worse things you can do for your brain. Just as exercise seems to aid memory, abusive habits have the opposite effect. Excess alcohol or drug use is a common cause of mental deficiency as seniors age, and smoking lowers the oxygen that the brain receives.
Combinations of certain medications can alter your attention span and memory. And stress releases hormones that kill brain cells.
Some practical advice from the experts on mind games you can play:
- Learn how to pay attention. Too often we drift into our mind or a mindless activity to the detriment of observing something interesting and new around us. One of the tenets of Eastern philosophies such as Zen is being aware of the present moment. Try several times a day to wipe the slate clean and look around you as if you are seeing your workplace or home for the first time.
- Play intelligent games. Bridge, chess and Scrabble are examples of good brain games. Crossword puzzles (they're available online now) are also good mental exercise that will improve attention acuity and jog your memory skills.
- Be social. Being with friends and using your emotional, intellectual and social skills is essential for good mental health. Try a team sport or activity.
- Keep a diary or journal. Writing down what you did or thought or felt during a day makes each day different and helps in memory retention.