Brain Exercise in Retirement

September 23, 2011

A successful retirement is based on staying engaged intellectually, physically and socially. A subset of intellectual engagement is keeping the brain healthy. How can we do that?

Our brains are constantly changing. The brain that began reading this blog entry is not the same brain that will finish reading it. This is due to the brain’s plasticity – its ability to create neurons (cells that process and transmit information) and neural connections throughout our lives. Our brains change throughout our lifetimes and we can help shape those changes. With proper health care and physical and cognitive exercise we can even increase our intelligence levels.

Proper brain care begins with many of the same things that are important for the other parts of our body: healthy diet, appropriate body weight, physical exercise and adequate sleep.

Brain exercise requires using our memory. There are many types of memory, but, at the risk of oversimplification, there are two major categories of memory: short-term or working memory and long-term memory. We put information into our short term memory for use in the near term, e.g. phone numbers, directions, where we put our keys, the name of the person we just met, daily to-do lists, recipes. The more we work with information from our short term memory – use it multiple times, manipulate it, share it with others – the more likely it is to enter into our long-term memory. Long term memory is like a huge storage center full of interconnected information we have sent there as well as sensory and emotional experiences.

Working memory tends to be low in young children, high in middle adulthood and to decline with age. The decline is part of the normal aging process. The good news is that working memory can be improved with a deliberate effort.

We can begin that effort by simply paying attention. If we are not paying attention or maintaining a reasonable level of interest in what is going on around us, not much will be going on in working memory. Similarly, if we try to multitask or let ourselves be easily distracted our working memory will be weaker.

We also need to work with or manipulate our stored memories to strengthen our working memories. We do this naturally as we live our daily lives, setting goals and schedules, solving problems, handling changes in information, setting priorities, organizing etc.

In addition, there are simple exercises and games that can stimulate and enhance our working memories. The key is to manipulate information we already have stored. Some examples:

  • Recite the alphabet backwards.
  • Spell words backwards. Start with five letter words and work your way up to longer ones.
  • Take a brief look at a set of pictures and then try to describe what you saw in as much detail as possible.
  • Write down a series of numbers in the morning and try to remember them for the rest of the day.
  • Pick a letter of the alphabet and see how many words you can name that begin with that letter in the space of a minute.
  • Name the States from east to west, west to east, south to north, north to south
  • Play video games that require you to manipulate information.
  • Play card games – poker and bridge are particularly good.
  • Learn to dance or learn to dance a new step.
  • After you see a play or a movie, write down its essential plot line.

There are also books, courses and web sites that can be helpful. The Teaching Company offers a course in Optimizing Brain Fitness. The Lumosity website offers interesting and progressively challenging brain exercises.

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2011 R.K. Price