Keeping mentally active (Part 2)

Keeping mentally active (Part 2)

Engaging your brain

Though more research is needed on which types of activity are best, most brain experts are convinced that staying mentally active throughout life is good advice. “We can make the brain work better simply by accumulating more knowledge, which builds more networks of connections in the brain,” says James McGaugh, PhD, at University of California, Irvine.


Acquiring more knowledge—and therefore building more nerve connections—may enable our brain to essentially compensate for, or at least forestall, any age-associated loss of synaptic connections that may occur. [Nerve cells (neurons) are the workhorses of the brain. Their fibers, or axons, form connections called synapses with other neurons.] In other words, our brain would be better equipped to forge alternate pathways of nerve connections to accomplish mental tasks. There is evidence from brain imaging studies that older people who maintain mental sharpness do in fact harness alternate brain pathways to accomplish the same tasks as younger people.


The brain is a learning machine. It craves novelty and challenge. Acquiring new skills and seeking out new experiences—rather than simply repeating the same old routines—will help ensure the machine continues to perform at its best.


Brenda Patoine ( is a freelance medical and science writer who has been writing about advances in neuroscience for nearly 20 years.


Excerpted from “Staying Sharp, Successful Aging and Your Brain.” Copyright ©2009 NRTA and the Dana Foundation. Reproduced with permission. A free download of this booklet along with additional booklets in the Staying Sharp series is available at



  1. Karlene Ball, PhD; Daniel B. Berch, PhD; Karin F. Helmers, PhD; Jared B. Jobe, PhD; Mary D. Leveck, PhD; Michael Marsiske, PhD; John N. Morris, PhD; George W. Rebok, PhD; David M. Smith, MD; Sharon L. Tennstedt, PhD; Frederick W. Unverzagt, PhD; Sherry L. Willis, PhD; for the ACTIVE Study Group. Effects of Cognitive Training Interventions With Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 2002; 288:2271-2281.

  2. Sherry L. Willis, PhD; Sharon L. Tennstedt, PhD; Michael Marsiske, PhD; Karlene Ball, PhD; Jeffrey Elias, PhD; Kathy Mann Koepke, PhD; John N. Morris, PhD; George W. Rebok, PhD; Frederick W. Unverzagt, PhD; Anne M. Stoddard, ScD; Elizabeth Wright, PhD; for the ACTIVE Study Group. Longterm Effects of Cognitive Training on Everyday Functional Outcomes in Older Adults. JAMA. 2006; 296:2805-2814.



Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives Brain Awareness Week; Staying Sharp booklets, puzzles, DVD; research

Keep Your Brain Young Marilyn Albert, PhD and Guy McKhann, MD (book, 2002) Published by John Wiley, available at bookstores and The Dana Foundation.


This article is provided courtesy of the International Council on Active Aging