"Research shows that it's not so much aging, but the dropoff in brain use" that affects mental acuity, says Warnke. "You can be a very active retiree, but if you do the same thing every day, you won't use the critical thinking and stimulation you use when you're working or raising a family."
Brain science is a complicated topic and the success of programs like Brain Aerobics can be difficult to measure. "The outcome is often based on perceived function and quality of life," says Ankrom. "It's hard to say you'll be able to answer 'Jeopardy' questions faster."
Still, Warnke says that his longtime class members "haven't required any involvement in therapy or in doctor's offices for memory or cognitive function. They're very sharp."
That clarity sometimes comes back to haunt him. "If there's a typo or if something's not perfect," he laughs, "they are right on top of it."
Pointing out the teacher's errors. Just like middle school.
Identifying the best brain activities
Not all brain activities are created equal, but the most challenging and effective programs share several characteristics. Broadmead speech pathologist Chuck Warnke recommends online resources like Luminosity, Posit Science and Dakim for inspiration and ideas.
Look for activities that:
Focus on Your interests: Find ways to turn current hobbies into brain-charging activities. "What do you do for fun?" asks GBMC Greater Gilchrist geriatrician Dr. Michael Ankrom. Enjoyable activities are easier to stick with, he says.
Help you connect: According to Ankrom, one of the best ways to challenge the brain is to encourage interaction with others, even if that means simply finding a buddy for daily walks. "A group activity with social aspects lights up the brain," he says.
Emphasize the process: At Broadmead, Warnke reminds his Brain Aerobics class that right and wrong answers don't matter. As long as you're thinking, the brain is active.
Mix it up: Even if you find one brain-stimulating activity you enjoy, keep looking for others. Variety is key to a healthy brain.
Exercise your brain at home
For his Brain University Class at Broadmead Senior Living Community, speech pathologist Chuck Warnke assigns "homework" that helps class members use their brain in new ways. Try an assignment at home to challenge your brain — and to have fun!
Dinner out: Warnke suggests approaching new cuisines as a restaurant reviewer might. "If you've never had Indian food before, go to a restaurant. Look at the sights and smells. Approach it as a critique."
Write it out: Some weeks, Warnke asks his class to write letters to the editors of local publications or to the mayor or other government officials. This activity require critical thinking skills, which keep the brain active and functioning.
Opposite day: A favorite activity at Broadmead, during Opposite Day, class members do everything with their non-dominant hand, requiring them to use new parts of their brain to complete everyday tasks, like brushing their teeth.
Tell a story: Go to the library, says Warnke, and choose a fiction book. "Flip to the middle and read for 10 minutes. Then spend 10 minutes writing about what you'd like to see happen for the rest of the book."
Shop around: Break out of daily routines by visiting a new grocery store. Repetitive activity allows the brain to be passive, while doing something new forces the brain to shift into active gear.