brain powerMerl Reagle has words on the brain. The 62-year-old master crossword puzzle creator--who also starred in the 2006 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 'racecar' 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.")
Consider this, doing word games regularly has been shown to promote the kind of brain growth that strengthens memory and concentration, as well as helping keep dementia and Alzheimer's at bay.
"When we expose our brains to something that's new and difficult, the cortex reacts," says Paul Nussbaum, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Throughout the brain run neural pathways, called dendrites, that are like tree branches, he says. When you encounter something novel and complex, your brain responds by generating new branches on the dendrites. "Over time, the more you do that, the brain begins to look like a jungle--as opposed to a Caribbean island with one palm tree," Dr. Nussbaum says. (And yep, this would be a rare case where a tropical island isn't ideal.)
If crosswords and Sudoku don't suit 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 also get your neurons firing; not to mention, they offer some family fun time, says Dr. Nussbaum. 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," says Dr. Nussbaum. "It's more challenging than going to and from your place of employment every day." 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, visiting an art gallery opening, or making reservations at a new restaurant.
3. Feed your mind. Certain nutrients have been found to better your brain cells and fight the inflammation that's been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's. Add these brainpower-boosting foods to your shopping list.
4. Challenge yourself. "Take out a blank piece of paper and write down three or four things you're really good at," says Dr. Nussbaum. "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. Remember, age is just a number. "The brain doesn't care how old you are," Dr. Nussbaum says. "It has a very simple request: It wants to be mentally stimulated and nourished, to socialize with others, to be physically active, to be stress free. These are things we have control over, regardless of age." So keep working your thinker to keep it working for you.