NOEL KING, HOST:
All right, we know that giving your mental muscles a workout can help keep your brain sharp as you get older. The question is what does that workout look like? Is it crossword puzzles? Is it computer games? To find out, NPR's Jon Hamilton talked to a brain scientist about her own approach to mental fitness.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Jessica Langbaum's interest in brain health is professional and personal.
JESSICA LANGBAUM: My grandfather was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment when I was in graduate school getting my Ph.D.
HAMILTON: He went on to develop Alzheimer's, and Langbaum began to ask herself a question.
LANGBAUM: How can I, in my career, help ensure that we aren't suffering from the disease when we reach that age?
HAMILTON: Today Langbaum is associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, and she firmly believes that staying mentally active is good for your brain. But Langbaum says she's not focusing on any single activity.
LANGBAUM: Just sitting down and doing Sudoko isn't probably going to be the one key thing that's going to prevent you from developing Alzheimer's disease.
HAMILTON: Langbaum says playing a puzzle game or one of those commercial brain games is like exercising just one muscle in your body. That muscle will get stronger, but your overall fitness isn't going to change. Langbaum says the brain training programs used in research studies are more promising and more strenuous.
LANGBAUM: They're hard.
HAMILTON: A few years ago, Langbaum was part of a groundbreaking study on brain training. About 2,800 people, age 65 and older, spent more than five weeks doing exercises that tested memory, reasoning and speed. Langbaum says they helped a bit.
LANGBAUM: They delay the onset of cognitive impairment. They keep your brain working at the same level, longer, compared to people who did not receive those same cognitive training interventions.
HAMILTON: Langbaum says it's unclear whether brain training can also prevent Alzheimer's. So I ask her whether she uses a cognitive training program.
LANGBAUM: I don't. Actually, I think my job is my daily cognitive training.
HAMILTON: She's not being flippant. Like a lot of people, Langbaum has a job that requires intense thinking, problem-solving and constant learning. She also has kids, a family and friends, which means the social areas of her brain get a daily workout. Langbaum says mental exercises may be most useful for people who are out of the workforce and more isolated, and she has some advice for anyone looking for a way to keep their brain healthy.
LANGBAUM: If you like crossword puzzles, do them, but try something new. And trying something new that brings you enjoyment is key. Don't do it if you don't like it.
HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.