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50+: Live Better, Longer

Best Memory-Boosting Games

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Keep Your Brain Alive

The game: This book, by Duke University neurobiology professor Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., and Manning Rubin, outlines 83 "neurobic" exercises — brain aerobics that use the five senses in unusual ways. Examples: brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand or turning the photographs on your desk upside down. Suggested playtime: Daily (though the program doesn't take much extra time since you are simply doing the same everyday things in a different way).

The claim: Neurobics stimulate nerve cells in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory and abstract thought.

The evidence: The book cites research from several universities showing that active brain cells produce higher levels of chemicals called neurotrophins — a sort of Miracle-Gro that encourages brain cells to create more nerve-to-nerve connections.

Play-by-play: I brush my teeth as a southpaw — it's slow and messy but fun. Inspired, I wash my face with my left hand and promptly drop the washcloth. Next, I flip the photos on my desk and find myself looking at the images with fresh eyes. (Why is my husband dangling upside down in the sky?)

Score: * * * *

Jolted out of autopilot mode, I feel invigorated. I could do neurobics every day.

Cost: $9 (Workman Publishing; workman.com)

Happy Neuron

The game: This consists of a series of 28 different computer-game exercises focusing on a number of brain functions, including memory, attention, language, visual/spatial skills, and logic. In one, I have to rebuild a fancy medieval shield as fast as possible; others have me retrace my on-screen route through one of the world's great cities, or match animal sounds with the right photo. Suggested playtime: 20 minutes, three times a week.

The claim: Happy Neuron's developers, a team of French neuroscientists and computer engineers, say that cross training builds and maintains critical thinking skills.

The evidence: In a pilot study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and carried out in Des Moines, IA, 10 people with memory problems showed "significant improvement in cognitive skills" after playing Happy Neuron three times a week for six months. But the volunteers also undertook other lifestyle changes — they exercised, went on a healthy diet, and engaged in lots of social interaction — so it's impossible to know for sure what caused the improvement.

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