Consequently, people can affect their brains simply by choosing particular experiences. Hence the burgeoning popularity of crossword puzzles, Sudoku and a whole slew of “brain training” games and software, the latter estimated by Education Week to be a $295 million worldwide market in 2009.
Though brain-training exercises purport to improve memory and cognition, a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that improving on a key task used in working memory training did not correspond with improvements in a battery of 17 other measures of cognitive ability.
“Basically, solving crosswords makes you a better crossword solver,” Mr. Byrne said. “It doesn’t make your entire brain better.”
The real key, Ms. Lucas said, is to cross-train. To engage in activities and experiences that challenge the brain in continually novel ways. Research suggests that an older person who learns a new language may be able to learn other things more quickly — and do things that require areas of the brain responsible for different tasks, such as speech and dancing, to work in tandem.
“What you want for a sharp, well-functioning brain are areas that are integrated,” she said. “So when Davey Johnson is using statistics and also looking at the physical aspects of a player’s swing, he is putting together two different parts of brain function. That keeps his brain in better shape.”
Body and mind
Speaking of keeping in shape: Despite having undergone serious heart and appendix surgeries, Mr. Johnson still works out on a regular basis.
Sometimes, in fact, he seems to forget that he’s decades removed from being a four-time All-Star who hit 43 home runs for the Atlanta Braves in 1973.
“Coming out of spring training, I was running so hard trying to get in shape to take ground balls and throw batting practice that I pulled a [hamstring],” Mr. Johnson said. “I was overdoing it a little bit. I tend to do that.”
If running can be rough on Mr. Johnson’s body, it likely is good for his mind. According to neurologists, regular physical exercise both boosts and preserves the brain by:
Stimulating the creation of new neurons;
Releasing hormones that help maintain connections between neurons;
Providing ample blood flow to the brain, which uses about 20 percent of the body’s total supply;
Accelerating production of new cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with cognition and memory.
“The hippocampus is kind of like a booth that enters a toll road, a gateway to new memories,” said Dr. Ausim Azizi, chairman of the Neurology Department at Temple University Medical School. “People whose hippocampus is damaged don’t lose any memories of what happened before, but they also don’t learn anything new.