How to Keep Your Brain Young

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Use It or Lose It

But why work so hard at learning at this point in your life? You sweated through years of homework, cramming, and test-taking. Why not simply coast?

One big reason is that, just as exercising your body protects against heart disease and osteoporosis, exercising your brain can keep the gray matter in tip-top shape, says John Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, and author of A User's Guide to the Brain (Vintage, 2002). Scientists have found that people who spend their free time reading, doing crossword puzzles, visiting museums, and pursuing mentally stimulating activities lower their risk of Alzheimer's disease and other types of cognitive decline. Formal education may provide similar benefits. In autopsies on volunteers who died during a long-term study on aging, researchers at Chicago's Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center have found that the more education a person had, the less likely he was to exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer's -- even if his brain revealed the presence of the disease.

Indeed, research conducted by Yaakov Stern, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at Columbia University, in New York City, suggests that stimulating your mind may build a better brain, a more complex one with alternative networks for thinking through problems and retrieving memories. This extraordinary organ is, as Dr. Merzenich puts it, a special-purpose machine that can take in information from the outside world, then change itself to meet the requirements at hand. Pretty impressive.

I, for one, need no further convincing: I'm determined to get mentally fit, starting right now. I haven't worked up to enrolling in a class yet, but I did buy a book of Latin roots that I've been studying, and I've been urging everyone I know to take some similar action. Whether you think big (enroll in graduate school) or, like me, start small (attempt this Sunday's crossword puzzle), remember -- your brain craves learning. So why not give it the attention and respect it deserves?

Continued on page 4:  Viagra for Your Brain?


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