April 8, 2007
The Baltimore Sun
Linell Smith

Picture a row of 50-somethings planted on recumbent bikes, pedaling purposefully while working on sudoku.

Alas, it’s no longer enough to have a fit body as you cycle through middle age. All boomers worth their low sodium know it’s a time to be boosting their brain power as well.

And a growing number of puzzle-pushers want to help.

There are familiar names like sudoku, of course, and the many varieties of crossword puzzles. Other newcomers, some online and some on discs and in video games, include Brain Age, MindFit, Tetris, Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Channel, Mattel’s Brain Games, SharpBrains and HappyNeuron.

The goal: helping build brain reserves now for when you might need them. Research has shown that the brain can keep learning new things and making new connections – and scientists hope such activity may prove useful in staving off such ravaging diseases of old age as Alzheimer’s.

“I don’t think I’ve run across an AARP member in this state who’s not doing crosswords or sudoku,” says Joe DeMattos, AARP Maryland state director. “There’s been a huge growth. Out of the blue, I got a call from someone whose new bridge business was going gangbusters and wanted to know if there was a way we could help them find volunteers who could help out in exchange for playing or getting lessons.”

Who’d have guessed that tricks and trumps could become as good for your brain health as walking treadmills and lifting weights?

“The brain is like any other part of your body: You use it to keep it active,” says puzzle guru and boomer Will Shortz, 54-year-old editor of The New York Times Crossword Puzzle and editor of several best-selling sudoku books.

“I think puzzles are particularly good for keeping the brain limber because they activate and exercise the brain in so many ways: Building vocabulary, or logic or mental flexibility. Sometimes they even test your humor. It’s like going to the gym and working out on all the machines.”

Mental activity

Many boomers are reaching for puzzles, and other ways to keep their brains healthy, because they are caring for parents who are struggling with dementia, says gerontologist Nancy Ceridwyn, director of educational initiatives at the American Society on Aging.

“People are saying to themselves: What’s the worst that can happen to me? The loss of my health or the loss of my brain health? Your brain is your identity, your memories. What you remember is who you are. So the idea of losing your brain is very scary.”

Pittsburgh neuropsychologist and author Paul Nussbaum says that people ages 85 to 94 have approximately a 50 percent risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

However, recent findings indicate that some people whose brains showed markers for the disease after autopsy did not exhibit signs of it when they were alive, he says. One possible explanation is that brain reserve can help delay the onset of the devastating condition.

“We’ve known for some time that the brain can generate new brain cells,” he says. “The old rule of thumb was that the critical period of brain development was age 0 to 6. Now we know the critical period of development is called ‘Life.’ … The human brain is not a rigid thing. It is highly dynamic, always organizing and reorganizing. It’s never too early or too late to get started on developing it.”

He says studies have demonstrated three environmental factors that improve brain health – socialization, mental stimulation and physical activity.

“People don’t know that every time your heart beats, 25 percent of it [blood flow] goes to the brain,” Nussbaum says.

Ceridwyn says some types of puzzles may become more like practicing than learning. A game like bridge, however, not only brings constant change, but also another major brain booster: socialization.

Creative challenge

Kathy Feiock, owner of the Bridge Club of Baltimore, says the level of memory and concentration required for duplicate bridge can be daunting.

“If I play for three or four hours at a stretch at a tournament, I’m drained,” the 58-year-old Baltimorean says. “One time when I was sick and couldn’t play bridge for a month, I noticed I had more trouble concentrating on things in general.”

Dan Moore, 57, of Burtonsville, adjusts his schedule as a home remodeler so that he can play bridge twice a week at the club, in Pikesville.

“The learning process never ends,” he says. “There are so many finer points that continue to add nuance to the game. It’s like learning a language.”

Ceridwyn, 56, also recommends the everyday puzzles of modern living for stimulating the brain. She flexes hers by following her financial portfolio and by developing her artistic skills at the haiku form.

“Even though I write for my job, it’s not the same as that creative spark,” she says.

Joe DeMattos, 47, is a sudoku man; AARP publishes the book Sudoku to Exercise your Mind.

“I’ve found that there’s a rhythm that develops the same way there is if you pick up a tennis racket after a while – or if you play one instrument and then pick up another, like a ukelele.

“If you play the puzzle Monday through Friday, there’s a difference in how it feels if you pick it up on Monday or on Friday. If you stick to it, you can find that brain rhythm. At first, it’s very foreign, but with a week under your belt, you’ve developed this understanding of the language of the puzzle.”


Engaging with only one type of puzzle may become routine and lessen some of its benefits, says Nussbaum, who compares it to driving the same route home from work.

“You need to expose yourself to the novel and the complex,” he says. “That’s different for each person. We become pretty good at doing certain things. For example, I’m good at writing, but I’m not good at art or playing an instrument. This isn’t a case of use it or lose it, it’s a case of use what you don’t know how to do very well.

“Bridge is good, poker is good, Scrabble, Monopoly. When people ask ‘Is this crossword puzzle good for me?’ I say, ‘Is it novel and complex for you?’ If not, go on to something you’re not so good at,” Nussbaum says.

“The idea is that there is some pain to these games and it’s OK to fail. And with success comes some neuro-physiological change. When you’re confronted by something you’re not very good at, you exert a lot of mental effort. It hurts a little, but part of that is laying down brain reserve, building new neurocircuitry.”