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by Michele Shapiro
Updated September 28, 2022
When was the last time you played tag, jumped rope, colored outside the lines or dived headfirst into a ball pit? While childhood play is essential for brain development, a little adult play can also go a long way toward keeping your brain strong and healthy, according to neurological research.
You don't need to resort to recess to work some play into your day. "It's not so much about engaging in the pretend play that you did as a child; it's using fun stuff to keep your mind going," says William B. Barr, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry and director of neuropsychology at New York University's Langone Medical Center.
Barr explains that adult play, which by definition is simply engaging in a voluntary, pleasurable activity that in itself is more important than the outcome, can serve one of three purposes. You can use play to: strengthen neural connections recently established (such as maintaining word knowledge with crosswords); establish new connections (playing a new game or trying a new activity); and reestablish things you'd done earlier in life (returning to a musical instrument).
Apparently, the benefits of resorting to activities that once brought you joy are also being tested outside science labs. Museums and book publishers alike are encouraging adults to loosen their ties and play a little.
For instance, creative agency Pearlfisher has created a traveling art installation, a pit filled with 81,000 white plastic balls, that has attracted adults-only crowds in London, Washington and New York. And on Friday and Saturday evenings at St. Louis's City Museum, adults and kids accompanied by an adult can romp through a 600,000-square-foot playground made of salvaged materials that includes a 10-story slide, a Ferris wheel and man-made caves for exploring.
Meanwhile, coloring books are having a comeback as more adults rediscover the calming, creative pastime. On Amazon, for example, five coloring titles have consistently been among its top 15 best-selling books. Popular themes for adult coloring books: forests, gardens, mandalas and animals.
What happens when you set aside your to-do list and do something fun and spontaneous instead?
"Social interaction is directly related to mood," says Battaglia. Engaging in playful activities, whether you're playing mah-jongg with the girls or miniature golf with the grandkids, helps you stay connected.
How much time should you allot to daily play? "Ideally, you should aim for 30 minutes," Barr suggests. But even a few minutes of focused, uninterrupted playtime is better than none.
• “Computerized Games versus Crosswords Training in Mild Cognitive Impairment,” NEJM Evidence, October 2022. Researchers recruited 107 people (average age, 71) with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), the early stage of memory loss that can come before dementia. Participants were randomly assigned to play computer games or do crosswords online. After 18 months of playing games, people in the crossword group scored slightly higher on tests of mental function. They had also lost less volume in their hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory. Read the full study.
• “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,” PLoS Medicine, July 2010. Researchers analyzed the results of 148 studies on social connections and longevity. Altogether, the studies included nearly 309,000 people who were followed for an average of 7½ years. The average age of the participants was 64 years. The authors found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival than those who had weaker relationships, although they acknowledged that it was hard to establish that a lack of social relationships caused a shorter life. Read the full study.