Renew’s happiness challenge: Flex your brain power

Part of feeling happy is being confident in your mental functions. It’s Day 5 of our challenge, and we have a simple — and fun — way to help strengthen your brain.

Leslie Goldman
Woman painting

The Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days challenge is the newest challenge from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. All week, we’re sharing fun and easy activities to help you strengthen your body, refresh your spirit and connect with the things you love. After all, when you make your own happiness a priority, it’s a win for your overall health.


You’re telling a friend about a fantastic new television show you’ve been watching. The lead actress, a well-known celebrity, is phenomenal in it. Her name is … her name is …

You can’t remember her name.

Sound familiar?

These sorts of blips in your memory are usually just a normal part of the aging process, says memory specialist Mariam Aly, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University. “Memory abilities change over a lifetime,” Aly says. “Even with healthy normal aging, there can be declines.”

But you have the power to help strengthen your memory, reducing the impact of these age-related declines. Smart lifestyle choices — including a brain-healthy diet, regular exercise and good sleep — can help protect your brain health, says Aly. Consistently challenging your memory is another smart strategy.

The benefits of brain exercises

One of the best ways to help keep your brain functions nimble is to consistently “stump” yourself, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Anything that makes you think strategically — from taking up a hobby to learning a new skill — appears to have both short- and long-term benefits for your brain health.

Other ways to stump yourself:

  • Pick up a paintbrush, camera, block of clay or quilting needle
  • Build a shelf or model car
  • Teach yourself to play bridge or chess
  • Learn a new language or instrument
  • Read a book from a new genre or author
  • Complete a jigsaw, Sudoku or crossword puzzle

Over time, these sorts of mental challenges can help build up your cognitive reserve. That’s what researchers at Harvard Medical School describe as your brain’s ability to tap into your lifetime of learning and curiosity. A strong cognitive reserve helps your brain work around natural declines by improving its ability to improvise and find new ways to tackle mental tasks.

“The goal of stumping yourself is to exercise your memory as much as possible, so when you do experience the inevitable decline, you’re still able to function at a relatively high level,” says Aly.

Brain exercises won’t protect against every brain health challenge, cautions Aly. While occasionally struggling to find the right word or misplacing an item and having to retrace your steps to find it aren’t likely a cause for concern, you should talk with your provider during your annual wellness visit if you’re experiencing more worrisome memory issues. They can conduct a brief dementia screening and help determine any next steps.

Keep challenging your mind with Renew’s brain games

Have fun testing your memory power, reaction time and problem-solving skills with a variety of brain health activities. Sign in to your plan website, go to Health & Wellness and look for Brain Games. Not a member? Learn more here

Why it’s a good idea to power down your technology

Going back to our example of trying to remember the name of a favorite actress, Aly notes that these days most of us would whip out our smartphone or go online to look up the answer.

Easy? Yes. Smart? Not necessarily.

Internet searches don’t challenge your brain, Aly points out. In fact, brain health researchers at Pennsylvania State University say that our society’s reliance on computers and smartphones has led to a phenomenon called digital amnesia. The experience of forgetting information you trust a digital device to store and remember for you, such as your best friend’s phone number, the password to your bank account or the cast of a movie: That’s digital amnesia.

“You have to pay attention to learn something,” she says. “If you just enter it in your phone or other device, you’re not engaging with the material as much, so you’re less likely to remember it.”

“Your brain is a use-it-or-lose-it machine,” adds author Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Cognition Lab at the University of California, Irvine. “When we learn new things and really commit them to memory, and then recall them later, we activate areas of the brain that are intimately involved with memory. But when we rely on gadgets and computers to remember them for us, those regions of the brain can weaken.”

Today: Quiz yourself — without the help of the internet

You don’t need a book of brain teasers to challenge your mind, says Mednick. Just think of a few personal questions to stump yourself. For example:

  • What’s your best friend’s phone number?
  • How many actors can you name from your favorite movie?
  • What are the lyrics to a hit song from your high school years?

Spend a few minutes thinking about your question (or questions) and see if you can come up with the answer yourself. “Have faith that your brain knows the answer,” says Mednick.

You can try the same challenge with math problems. Don’t immediately use a calculator; try to think it through. Similarly, challenge yourself to come up with two or more ways to get to your home from a set starting point. Or pick a city or landmark and try to plot out the best route to get there without using help from an app or computer.

For more thought starters and brain teasers, turn to Day 5 in your Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days Activity Guide, which you can download here

“The idea is to stop living in automatic mode,” says Mednick. “The more you try novel approaches or push yourself to engage your brain and think things through, the better your chances of keeping your brain healthy for a long time.”

“If you try to generate the information yourself, your memory will ultimately be better than if you just passively read something,” adds Aly. “If you look up that actress’s name on the internet, you’ll have solved your tip-of-tongue state, but the next time you try to remember it, it will be really hard.”





Keep up with the challenge: 

Download your Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days Activity Guide  

Day 1: Commit to Your Mental Well-Being 

Day 2: Silence Your Inner Critic 

Day 3: Rediscover the Joy of Nature 

Day 4: Give Tai Chi a Try