The term "use it or lose it" can apply to many subjects, but it is especially appropriate when it comes to keeping the brain sharp.
"We now know that lifestyle choices -- such as engaging in more physical, social and mental activities -- can keep our brains healthier as we age," says Maria Carrillo, Ph.D., director of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association (http://www.alz.org).
Fortunately, there are many easy and enjoyable ways, ranging from simple laughter to playing Nintendo Wii games, to achieve this goal.
Laughter is a good place to start, according to Sondra Kornblatt, author of "A Better Brain at Any Age." "Laughter improves alertness, creativity and memory. It releases stress and can also lower blood pressure," says the Seattle-based author.
Kornblatt recommends the strengthening of communities as another way to keep the brain sharp. "Social functions energize the whole brain. Meeting new people and increasing social behavior means you are remembering names and faces. ... This makes you pay attention to people, which can activate different parts of the brain," she says.
Music also can play a positive role in keeping the brain sharp. "Music stimulates part of the brain circuitry. The heartbeat and blood flow respond to music," Kornblatt says, noting that some stroke patients can sing, even if they can't talk. She recommends playing a musical instrument to get both sides of the brain working and singing to improve oxygen flow to the brain.
Doing puzzles has long been recognized as an activity that keeps the brain agile, but they have been receiving special attention lately. Syndicated puzzle writer Terry Stickels has authored "The Big Brain Puzzle Book" for the Alzheimer's Association. The book's 200 puzzles -- including visual and wordplay games, trivia questions and mathematical equations -- are divided into three progressive levels.
"Too many people have the idea that senior citizens either are senile or have a grade-school education, which isn't true," says Stickels, from Rochester, N.Y. "I don't give them softball questions or puzzles. I want you to have to work to solve them. This keeps the mind stimulated. I get requests for more difficult ones."
It is aimed primarily at senior citizens, but "The Big Brain Puzzle Book" can be enjoyed by people from 9 years old to 90, says Stickels.
"The puzzles can be done alone or with others, which means it can be used with family members and friends. They're meant to be fun, as well as mentally stimulating."
Technology is yet another way to keep the mind sharp. Home Instead Senior Care in Mount Vernon, Calif., has introduced the use of Nintendo Wii to promote mental stimulation among its clients. This started six months ago, according to owner Michelle Rogers, whose company provides in-home caregivers. Home Instead, which provides staff members with Wii equipment, has started training caregivers in the use of Wii games and activities.
"Both the caregivers and clients feel challenged to get involved," she says, adding that the results so far have been promising.
Rogers cites the example of a client who suffered a stroke two years ago. "He became very engaged with Wii, and his children couldn't believe the difference in Dad."
Wii is another activity that can be done with other family members and can increase seniors' interaction with others.
Home Instead is starting a life stories program, which will involve videotaping seniors citizens' reminiscences, and that also can stimulate the brain.
"Seniors like to talk about themselves. Ask them to tell you about their careers or memories and you will hear many things," Rogers says.
When it comes to keeping the brain sharp, digital is definitely the way to go, according to Andy Harrison, whose Crossword Cubed games business includes hard copy puzzles and an online crossword puzzle game. Technology plays an important role in maintaining mental acuity.
"The whole idea of 'senior citizen' has been redefined. Sitting by the fire knitting ain't it. We're a mobile society, and seniors are part of it," says Harrison, from Pelham, N.Y.
The image of senior citizens as being afraid of technology -- whether it be computers, the Web, cell phones or iPods -- is false, Harrison says. He points out that today's younger senior citizens began using some of those things when they first were developed, so they are comfortable with them.
"They are proficient with technology. Technology makes people able to keep their minds going. They can exercise their minds much more."