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MIND GAMES by Allyson Marrs

It's been called a trap, or a keeper—and maybe even a vault. The mind has been accused of many things—from storing the best and worst memories to playing games. It's also something that's dearly missed as it starts to degrade.

One of the side effects of growing older is the brain's lessening ability to function quickly and recall information. Our brain becomes less efficient at processing information as we age, according to "Scientific American" magazine, because it struggles to process information from the senses due to "degenerative changes in the brain's associative cortex, which then leads to a decline in memory."

This isn't to say that eyesight and hearing are necessarily declining, but that the brain's ability to filter through all of these senses at once slows.

Dr. Abhineet Chowdhary, a neurologist from Overlake Hospital Medical Center, who specializes in endovascular neurosurgery, neurosurgery and spine surgery, believes in the old adage, "Use it or lose it."

He cites the early 1980s study performed by a team at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. There were 488 people in the study between the ages of 75 and 85, and the researchers closely tracked the 101 participants who developed dementia over the course of the study.

Many participants read, wrote, completed crossword puzzles, played card games, played music and participated in group discussions during this time. Periodically, all of the participants would take word memory tests to track their decline with the disease.

Dr. Chowdhary explains that the authors found those who didn't do any brain exercises during the week lost their memory three times as quickly as those who did partake in the brain games seven days a week.

During those 15 months, those who did no brain activities had a memory loss of 7.3 percent. Those who challenged their brains each day had a memory decline of 2.5 percent. "What we do know now that we didn't just a decade ago is that people generate new brain cells, and new connections between them, throughout life," Dr. Chowdhary said. "And the more mental reserves people build up, the better they can stave off age-related cognitive decline."

As far as how to do that, mental stimulation (through games) is one thing people can start with. "The more you challenge your brain, the more new nerve pathways you form. A mini-industry of brainteasers, puzzles and computer games has sprung up to help worried baby boomers do just that. But you can give your brain a good workout with just a few modifications in your daily life," he said.

Some daily life changes he recommends are brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand, eating with your eyes closed and other similar activities.

But how do the games translate into a more active brain? During a study performed by Sherry Willis and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University, they found that brain exercises focused on training reasoning skills translated into improvements in daily life.

After five years (10 one-hour sessions each year) the group partaking in the reasoning activities had a noticeable improvement in daily activities, although there was no such noticeable improvement after only two years. The control group (who didn't do these activities), however, showed a decline.

Studies that yield similar results show training sessions—game playing—can have long-lasting cognitive and functional benefits.

Of course there are myriad options for challenging yourself mentally, but below are a selection of popular games that could keep your mind sharp, and best of all, they can be enjoyed with family and friends.

(and other card games)
Bridge is a game of strategy, especially since there's a partnership trying to take as many tricks as possible. It's a game of matching suits, bidding and trumping. Players need to know the value of a suit and the consequences of bidding or passing by mentally running through their options and the possible outcomes.

Along with the reasoning skills associated with the game, there's also some math, since each card has a point value, and these will equal a particular number of tricks.

The strategizing in this game is so mentally beneficial, that the "New York Times" has reported many schools using the game in the classroom.

(and other number games)
This number-placement game is highly addictive, which is a great thing since it's a challenging puzzle. All you have to do is use the numerals 1 through 9 and place them correctly in their rows and columns, with each using those numbers just once. It's anything but simple!

Logic is the name of this game. It's also about patience because there's no guesswork involved. You have to think out all possibilities before placing a number.

Most of all, though, it teaches focus, and for those who are finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on one task, sudoku can give you that practice.

(and other word games)
There are four essential ways crossword puzzles can benefit your brain. They enhance vocabulary, strengthen word recall and memory, stimulate problem-solving skills and improve focus and attention.

With the immense variety of crossword puzzles—from varying themes to varying sizes—the novelty and complexity are brain-boosting staples.

Although there is no way to prevent Alzheimer's or dementia, crossword puzzles are among the most recommended games for Alzheimer's and dementia patients because of the mental skill it takes to complete them.

(and other matching games)
Like the other games mentioned, jigsaw puzzles require a lot of logical and creative thinking—making both sides of your brain work at once. The player has to constantly be looking at the bigger picture.

Memory is also a part of the process. You may notice a hole in the puzzle and recall a piece you saw earlier that would fit perfectly in place. You're recalling old information and using spatial reasoning skills.

It's best to remember that the challenge is what produces the results. So to keep your mind quick, cycle through various games weekly, rather than get too comfortable with one set of rules and strategies.

The benefits are there for the taking, and you may not notice them right away, especially if you're still young; but you will notice when you're still sharp as a pin in your 70s.

When it comes to brainteasers, card games and puzzles, you don't always have to be the winner to take it all.

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