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Finding Time for Play May Help Keep Your Brain Healthy and Protect Your Memory

Building fun into your day may strengthen neural connections as well as social ties


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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?

  • "The adult brain is kind of peculiar compared to other tissue in the body," explains Fortunato Battaglia, a neurologist and associate professor at Seton Hall's School of Health and Medical Sciences. "You cannot grow new neurons in the vast majority of the brain. However, you can grow the interaction between neurons, which is the basis of healthy aging. The amount of connectivity can be increased by engaging in activities that bring you pleasure." 
  • In his research, Battaglia has found that such engagement has a protective effect against depression, which he says is often mistaken for memory loss. "The part of brain that controls mood also controls memory, so improving depression can also have a positive impact on memory," he says. 
  • Another benefit of playtime for adults: It helps maintain social well-being, which many studies suggest is key for living longer. 

"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.

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