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Stay classy: Learning something new will help keep your brain fit

If you want to keep your brain healthy as you get older, medical experts say you have to work at it.

"We think of cognitive ability as the ability to think," said Joan Acres, a community outreach coordinator with the Alzheimer's Association based in the Tri-Cities. "And exercising that is just like exercising every other part of the body ... you have to be consistent."

No matter your age, research suggests continuing to stimulate your brain is integral in staving off neurological disorders that appear later in life such as Alzheimer's or dementia. For exercise, Acres recommends regularly introducing your brain to something new.

Two important caveats, she said, is that the new activity needs to be something you enjoy, but it also needs to be challenging. If you enjoy it, you're more likely to get excited about it and continue pursuing it, she said, but if it's too easy, then it's not doing your brain any good.

"If you're one of those people who does crossword puzzles and finishes them in 15 minutes, you should probably think about doing something else," she said.

She recommends taking a class that intrigues you, joining a club with people who share mutual interests, reading something above your typical reading level, trying your hand at challenging puzzles or board games, or learning new skills in areas such as cooking or furniture-making. Whatever you choose for your new activity, Acres recommends doing it three or four times a week - anything less, she said, isn't enough.

But Acres cautioned against doing anything too challenging, saying it can be discouraging and counterproductive. For example, taking a class in trigonometry might not be the healthiest way to give your brain a challenge, she said.

Acres recommends starting right away with your new activity, and with summer right around the corner, now is the perfect time to start thinking about what you can do with any free time in the coming months. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities throughout the Yakima Valley to get your brain thinking again. So try it, because Acres says it pays off.

"Continued learning is great for brain health in people who don't show any signs (of disease), and it's good for people who do show signs - or even have a diagnosis - of a disease," she said.