Mind games: Keeping your brain sharp through play

Your brain benefits from use both at work and at play.

Posted Apr 13, 2010

As I've mentioned in several previous postings here, mental and physical activity are the best ways to keep your body, including your brain, in top shape. This week I examine the specific contributions that leisure pursuits can make to optimal functioning throughout life.

First, I'd like to point out that the very fact that you are online and interested in maximizing your brain's potential by reading this blog is a good sign that you are headed in the right direction. Based on the feedback I've gotten through comments and online quizzes, the people reading my blog are of all ages, from high school students to retirees. Although sitting down at the computer is not exactly physical exertion, if you combine the mental stimulation you are getting now with a good workout later in the day, you are taking important steps to keep your synapses clicking.

Now let's get on with the scientific evidence on the topic of leisure pursuits and health, starting with general physical functioning. The ultimate measure of physical functioning is mortality: if you are in good physical health you will most likely live longer. In 2009, a team of Swedish researchers at Upsalla University led by Liisa Byberg reported on the results of a major study that more or less proved the point.

Byberg and her associates examined the relationship between activity and death rates among over 2200 men first studied when they were 50 years old. Their activity levels were assessed with pretty simple questions such as whether they engaged mainly in sedentary activities, went walking or cycling for pleasure, and engaged in heavy gardening or active recreational or competitive sports. Over the next 32 years, the death rates of these men were tracked. A clear trend emerged: the men engaging in highly active leisure pursuits were significantly less likely to die than the men whose activities were entirely sedentary. What's more, the improvement in mortality seen among the exercisers was equivalent to the higher survival rates of men who quit smoking (see the figure below). If you didn't know that heavy gardening could help you live longer, then this is a good reason to get yourself set up with a hoe, a rake, and a shovel.

 So a physically active leisure lifestyle is one key to successful aging. Now let's look at the other part of the equation- mental activity as a leisure pursuit. We know that mentally engaging work benefits intellectual functioning (as I discussed last week), but what happens to you if you incorporate a steady diet of mental challenges into your off-hour lifestyle as well? Will that buy you extra time on this planet and better mental health to boot?

The answer is definitively yes. A team of researchers led by Joe Verghese at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine asked over 400 participants to rate the extent to which they engaged in such cognitively demanding activities as reading, writing, crossword puzzles, playing games, playing music, and engaging in group discussions. The participants were also asked about the physical activities they pursued in their leisure time. Over the next 21 years, as ratings were made of their cognitive functioning, the cognitively engaged were least likely to develop a form of memory disorder known as vascular cognitive impairment, a broad form of memory loss associated with changes in the circulatory system.

The reduced risk of memory disorders found in the cognitively active could have been due to a number of factors-- an overall healthy lifestyle, lower stress levels and greater involvement in social interaction. It's also possible that the cognitively healthy were more likely to continue to pursue mentally challenging leisure pursuits (ah yes, the good old "causation does not equal causation"). But, and this is important- the relationship held even after eliminating from the analyses anyone whose cognitive changes preceded any changes in leisure activity, leading this threat to the study's conclusions to fizzle.

Now you might be wondering why physically active leisure pursuits didn't buy these Bronx elders the same kind of benefits as those shown by their Swedish counterparts. The authors of the Albert Einstein study pointed out that the physical activities engaged in by their participants might not have been sufficiently intense to give them that added longevity or health benefit. At the time of their enrollment into the study they were already a minimum of 75 years old, considerably older than participants in some of the other studies demonstrating the benefits of exercise.

I'm inclined to agree with the interpretation that the activities were not sufficiently strenuous, not only because I am a solid believer in physical activity (and almost nothing will change my mind about that) but because counted among physical activity was babysitting. Although following a 2-year-old around the house can get your heart rate going, it's not quite the same as lifting a heavy shovel in and out of a trench you're digging for the daylilies or plucking out a week's worth of dandelions from your front yard. Lifting a heavy mental load has clear benefits but don't think that will get you out of having to get those legs of yours moving.

So, take those cogwheels in your head and give them a daily spin. If you're tempted to veg out at night after an exhausting day in the office, on the tennis court, or even after chasing a wayward toddler, pick up a good book, read the Op-Eds in the newspaper, or take a stab at a crossword puzzle. Find someone to play Scrabble with you. If you can do nothing other than pick up the TV remote, at least tune in for a while to a good game show. Perhaps you might consider attending a lecture or two in the evening at a local college or dabble in a pottery class at the high school. 

Keep up the mental activity, including the education you are gaining from your blog-reading habit. Your brain will thank you!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010


Byberg, L., Melhus, H. K., Gedeborg, R., Sundstrom, J., Ahlbom, A., Zethelius, B., et al. (2009). Total mortality after changes in leisure time physical activity in 50 year old men: 35 year follow-up of population based cohort. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 338.

Verghese, J., Wang, C., Katz, M. J., Sanders, A., & Lipton, R. B. (2009). Leisure activities and risk of vascular cognitive impairment in older adults. Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, 22, 110-118.