A Brain Aerobics event at Broadmead

Dorothy Sinclair (back to camera) holds a pencil as she tries to solve a word problem at Broadmead Assisted Living. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun photo / February 18, 2013)

In a cheery room in Cockeysville, two dozen people sit with their heads down, focused on the papers in front of them. The only sound is the scratching of pencils on paper.

The sight triggers memories of school days, but this is no group of middle schoolers eking their way through a math class pop quiz. It's the Brain Aerobics class at Broadmead Senior Living Community.

Once a week, speech pathologist Chuck Warnke leads the class through a variety of mental activities, including riddles, word games and history puzzles — one activity challenged class members to remember the prices of products, from a gallon of milk to a pair of women's leather boots, from 1972.

Like regular aerobics, Brain Aerobics is all about working out. "It's a set of exercises that engage as many different parts of the brain as possible," explains Warnke, who launched the Broadmead class about four years ago.

As the U.S. population ages, brain health is an increasingly hot topic. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease — that includes 1 in 8 older Americans.

"Three-quarters of people over 80 don't have memory problems at all," says Dr. Michael Ankrom, a geriatrician at GBMC Greater Gilchrist. "But it's an understandable fear. None of us want to not be in control of our environment — and that's essentially what dementia does."

To stay as mentally fit as possible, Ankrom recommends that his patients stay physically fit, get enough sleep, stay hydrated — and engage in mental activities like Brain Aerobics.

"We often think of the brain like we think of muscles — use it or lose it," says Ankrom. "That's not totally true, but we do get foggy. Like with math — if you don't use it every day, it's harder to do."

The best brain-stimulating activities are enjoyable and social, say Warnke and Ankrom.

Warnke points out that while solitary activities (like crossword puzzles or reading) are valuable, they are not as mentally challenging as activities that force interaction with others, or that jar people out of their everyday routines.

"Something you do repetitively, like a crossword every day, is good for you, but it's not a Brain Aerobics activity," he explains. "Brain Aerobics is new and challenging, not easy or passive.

"You can't prepare for social elements" of interaction, warns Warnke. "And when you react to someone, that's when your brain is really flashing."

Ankrom says he has to figure out "what motivates a person" to find activities they'll embrace. He tries to "get them to reconnect with things they've enjoyed before" to ensure that they stick with the activity.

Local senior-living homes work hard to identify activities that will appeal to their communities, says Terri Hanlon, manager of activities at Roland Park Place.

"We have a lot of academics here," she says. "They want to continue doing the things they used to do, so we bring in teachers and Peabody musicians. I worked at a different facility where people loved bingo. But here, they played once and that was it. It was not a part of their lifestyles when they were younger."

At Heartlands Assisted Living in Severna Park, activities director Linda Seegmuller runs a "brain learning experience" program that is both popular and literal. "We talked about the parts of the brain and how you can use different games and puzzles to stay sharp."

At Broadmead, Warnke and his Brain Aerobics class openly discuss the benefits of what they're doing. "It keeps your mind alert — hopefully!" laughs Dorothy Sinclair, a Broadmead resident who frequently attends Brain Aerobics.

The people who go to Brain Aerobics "aren't afraid to understand the brain's need to be challenged and pushed," says Warnke. "Your brain health is not a passive event. Most have the personality that they're out there — they want to be as good as they can for as long as they can. They don't stick their heads in the sand or avoid doctors."

Broadmead residents seeking even more of a challenge can sign up for Brain University. "Research shows you need to exercise your brain at least four days a week for at least 20 minutes," says Warnke.

Brain Aerobics is once a week, but Brain University class members receive four assignments to complete over seven days. Assignments — like doing everything with your non-dominant hand or writing a letter to the editor — are designed to encourage critical thinking and stimulate the brain on a deep level.