To Keep Your Brain Nimble As You Age, Stretch It Challenging your brain with mental exercises can improve your intelligence over the years and help stave off the dementia that comes with old age, says psychiatrist and author Richard Restak. He offers up a workout regimen to keep your brain fit.

To Keep Your Brain Nimble As You Age, Stretch It

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They say when the bully at the beach kicks sand in your face, go bulk up at the gym. Well, the same goes for when you're feeling mentally scrawny. There are ways to add strength to your brain. NPR's Linton Weeks went for a workout of the mind.

LINTON WEEKS: My personal trainer is Richard Restak. He's the author of a new book, "Think Smart: A Neuroscientist's Prescription for Improving Your Brain's Performance." Okay, let's get started. Oh, yeah - there is a quiz at the end.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

WEEKS: You know what Restak says? He says if we sleep more, eat less, exercise our bodies and our brains, we can improve our intelligence over the years. Yes, even...

Dr. RICHARD RESTAK (Author, "Think Smart: A Neuroscientist's Prescription for Improving Your Brain's Performance"): old age, if you will. You can still take up a language, you can learn to play bridge, and that establishes connections between the neurons so the synaptic density begins to increase.

WEEKS: In other words, as we get older...

(Soundbite of baby crying)

WEEKS: ...we can still get smarter. The key is to exercise the three different types of memory: long-term, sensory and working. Let's first talk about long-term memory.

Dr. RESTAK: Well, long-term memory is just everything we know about like, history, important dates, important things that happened - call it the treasure trove of information that you have. So that's long-term memory and we're forming it all the time.

WEEKS: Here's how we can exercise our long-term memory.

Dr. RESTAK: You can choose a year and then first of all, associate it with yourself, what you were doing. The case may be…

WEEKS: Let's see: 1985, we were living in Little Rock. I was driving a Toyota Tercel. Our first child was born in March. And it's sort of hard to remember anything after that.

Dr. RESTAK: It's called a reminiscence exercise. It could be used at any time in life.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

WEEKS: Then we stretch our sensory memory.

Dr. RESTAK: Sensory memory is something that you don't hear to much about, yet it's the most important part of laying down a memory: paying attention to what's going on. Why don't we remember somebody's name? Because we weren't really listening when we met them. One of the exercises I talk about is going into the kitchen and pulling down some spices and herbs, and seeing if you can identify them by smell alone.

WEEKS: We're in your kitchen and you've got some spices out. Now, I'm not going to look at them. I'm going to close my eyes.

Dr. RESTAK: Smell that one. You know what that is?

WEEKS: No I don't.

Dr. RESTAK: Curry. Try one more?

WEEKS: Oh, no. That is - that's thyme or...

Dr. RESTAK: Correct. That's right. So you like thyme?

WEEKS: That's true. It makes a difference.

Dr. RESTAK: It also will be something that you're going to be able to increase your ability to recognize.

WEEKS: Research shows that routinely training the memory with simple exercises throughout your life can help ward off the dementia of old age. Now we turn to the working memory.

Dr. RESTAK: Working memory is the most important part of it. That's the area of being able to keep in mind several things at once.

(Soundbite of gong)

WEEKS: He suggests an exercise.

Dr. RESTAK: I give the example of what I say to someone: well, give me the presidents from Obama back to Truman. And they would name them, and then I'll say, well, now give them to me alphabetically. Now, as soon as you get alphabetically then you have to keep them in mind and juggle them around, and when they get that, I say well, let's do it according to party. Then they have to do it a different way. That's working memory.

WEEKS: So, speaking of being able to keep several things in mind at once, can you name the four sounds you heard during this report? If you said an alarm...

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

WEEKS: ...a baby...

(Soundbite of baby crying)

WEEKS: ...and a car horn...

(Soundbite of horn honking)

WEEKS:'re on your way to a fine and fit working memory. Oh yeah, there was one more sound. Oh well. Linton Weeks, NPR News.

(Soundbite of gong)

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