The Secret to Staying Sharp as We Age


By: , SparkPeople Blogger

If you're lucky enough to live a long life, you hope it will be a healthy one. Diet and exercise are important for keeping your body in good shape. But what's the secret to keeping your mind in good shape too? Researchers are studying people who have lived past 90 without any signs of dementia, and what helps preserve their mental sharpness.

In 1981, researchers at the University of Southern California started the 90+ Study to look at mental acuity in the elderly. According to the study, "Evidence suggests that people who spend long stretches of their days, three hours and more, engrossed in some mental activities like cards may be at reduced risk of developing dementia." Now researchers are trying to determine whether or not these people are sharp because they are active, or active because they are sharp.

Research has found little evidence that diet and exercise affect the risk of dementia in people over 90. Mental activities like crossword puzzles and reading can help delay symptoms, as can regular social interactions (which also require brain power). It appears that some mental activities are more effective than others, and that activities with a social aspect (playing cards vs. reading a book) have the biggest impact on mental acuity.

My grandmother lived in a retirement community and was very active into her mid 80's. She walked regularly, played in a bowling league and met her friends to play cards once a week. A series of health problems forced her to give up those activities for a short period of time, and she never started back again. After that, her mental health quickly deteriorated. She began to isolate herself, and watching the Jerry Springer Show became one of her primary connections to the outside world. Needless to say, she started to lose touch with reality. My other grandmother just turned 90 and is one of the sharpest people I know. She goes to lunch regularly with her friends and buys and reads so many books she could start her own library. I think the combination of those two things (social and mental activities) has kept her brain functioning in peak condition.

What do you think? Have you seen examples of this in your own life? Do you plan to use activities like reading and games to keep your brain sharp as you age?

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  • 47
    Jack LaLanne is 94 and works out 2 hours every single day. He says "Use it or lose it" so I plan to stay active and never stop doing or learning. - 6/3/2009   10:25:44 AM
  • 46
    My grandmother is 97. She loves those search and find games, reads, was active in her church until recently, crochets and talks on the phone A LOT! I have never seen her sitting around idle. And she still spoils me after all these years. I am very blessed to still have her around. - 6/3/2009   9:50:45 AM
  • 45
    Several of my relatives lived into their 90s. They may have had some health problems, but their minds were sharp as tacks. I suspect the reason was because they were literate. They read the newspaper every morning. They read books, magazines, etc... They also walked whenever they could.

    We all read. I love reading and I love doing puzzles. Puzzles were another popular pastime in my family.

    - 6/3/2009   9:20:24 AM
  • 44
    My grandmother did crosswords and word search puzzles almost every day. She stopped when the arthritis in her hand began to bother her. She and my grandfather were both mentally sharp because they were also socially active with our church. My grandfather passed away at 83. My grandmother passed away at 88. I never really thought about the reasons for their longevity until I read this article. This explains a lot. - 6/3/2009   8:59:21 AM
  • 43
    Both my grandmothers stayed active until they got Alzheimer's - the last years of their lives were certainly different. As many have said here they could remember things from their childhood clearly but could not remember family members names or what happened yesterday.

    My maternal grandmother was left to raise two children by herself back in the 1920's - she ran boarding houses, cooked for community events and went to church faithfully. I never fully appreciated what she had done until I was married and on my own. Back in a time when there were no programs to help single mothers she did what she had to do and I never heard her complain about her lot in life. My favorite memories of her are snuggling under the comforter listening to stories and "helping her cook" everything from scratch. She always made people feel welcome in her home.

    My paternal grandmother was a gifted woman, she could sew, crochet, decorate, bake and do about anything. If anyone wanted something different for a gala event she was the one they went to. She passed on her love of crochet to me and I am so thankful for that. She also was the one who (against my Irish grandmothers wishes) would take me to the race track, show me how to place bets etc etc - you get the picture the unconventional grandmother in so many aspects.

    Both these woman were busy keeping up their own homes, cooking and taking care of others until health reasons put a stop to it.

    My parents are still very active dad is 84 and mother 80, they take care of themselves, their home and yard which is rather large. Dad plays computer games daily,makes clocks and gardens. Mother cooks, knits and reads. Until recently they had interaction with a close circle of friends. During the past 9 months all but one of these really close friends passed away suddenly one after another, and the one left had a stroke and is incapacitated. I have wondered what effect this will have on them as they I know they really miss them. Two of the ladies were especially close to my mother, they spoke on the phone every day and visited each other at least once a week for morning or afternoon tea. I am a little concerned that this will have a negative effect as when I ask now what have they been doing Mum will say whatever we want to no one around to ask questions.

    My parents both have a wonderful sense of humor which I think goes a long way to staying healthy in mind. I live on one side of the world they are on the other so phone calls keep us in touch and I can tell when they are having a rough time by the sound of their voices.

    Reading all these posts makes me realize I can help my own situation. Hopefully doing the daily crossword puzzle, reading a multitude of books and doing crafts as well as outside activities will help me stay healthy for years to come.
    - 6/3/2009   8:56:53 AM
  • 42
    I have to totally agree with this article. I have SEEN it. My Dad was 89 when he passed, and had no dementia. My mom , 86, has macular in one eye, and the other is not so good. Doesn't stop her from reading her paper, doing her crosswords or playing computer games. She is still "sharp as a tack". Goes out regularly to church, to the widows club, and out with friends.
    As well as living in a stimulating environment, where she plays bingo regularly using 3 cards at a time, and then they also read to the ladies, which my Mom loves. She is not that into TV, and never has been, but LOVES her baseball games! - 6/3/2009   8:53:30 AM
  • 41
    I have been fortunate that my parents and my husband's parents lived or are living long lives with their mental capacities intact. I hope to do the same. Every day I work the Jumble and a Sudoku puzzle as well as other "word game" types of puzzles. I think this helps me stay mentally sharp. What do you think SP? Is their some kind of daily word puzzle you could post here for our mental health? - 6/3/2009   8:40:35 AM
  • 40
    I have a great Aunt who lives in a nursing home, who turned 99 this year. She just transferred out of one facility to another because the people at the old one no longer wanted to play cards. Longevity in our family on that side is normal.She is the oldest but the others are well on there way. - 6/3/2009   8:38:46 AM
  • 39
    My mom did really well until my father died. Then she went downhill rapidly and lost touch with the world. They were never lovey-dovey but it seemed that she couldn't continue and feel connected without him. We tried, of course, to keep her going and interested but it didn't pan out. Two of her sisters also suffered dementia - one quite young. It is a great concern of mine as they are the relatives I most resemble. - 6/3/2009   8:23:58 AM
  • BELG64
    My dad is 86 and travels from Europe to the States every year to come and visit me and my family. At home he is extremely busy, he plays cards several times a week, twice in a competitive setting and every Sunday with all my brothers and sisters at his home. On Thursday nights he goes to a friends house to socialize. He also still "works" for a lawyer, he takes registered mail to the post office or shows houses for the lawyer to prospective buyers. Finally, he reads a lot, does crosswords and sudoko and cruises the internet! GO DAD! - 6/3/2009   8:19:24 AM
  • 37
    This is great news for all of us. My girlfriend's mother is 99 this June. She cooks, sews, reads books, holds great coversation, is a member of the Red Hat Ladies and has changed my whole view of aging. Her memory is not quite as sharp and she no longer drives, a few aches and pains, and a remarkable giving woman. What a joy to know her. - 6/3/2009   7:56:51 AM
  • 36
    The first patient of mine who crossed the 100 mark had very strict rules of when we could schedule appointments....Wed was her card playing day, Monday's something else, Thursdays only worked if the appointment was by a certain get the picture. For her birthday we planned a party...we made sure that her nephew came with her and her sister and we suprised them with cake and many other treats in our waiting room all decorated and with the newspapers there to capture the moment. She was so sweet as she introduced her "baby" sister (age 94) to the reporters. We all learned that day that age can be just a number! - 6/3/2009   7:56:46 AM
  • 35
    There's a lot to be said for keeping your mind sharp with social and mental activities. It makes a lot of sense to me. - 6/3/2009   7:56:37 AM
  • 34
    My boyfriend's grandmother just passed away last month - at the age of 101!!!

    She did crosswords and word searches, read, played cards, traveled, and went up and down the stairs to her bedroom every day. This woman was truly amazing, and I would credit her longevity and health to her mental and social activities - it makes a lot of sense! - 6/3/2009   7:43:17 AM
  • 33
    My grandmother passed away last year just short of her 91st birthday. She was incredibly clear up until the last few weeks before her death. She was ALWAYS reading. Although health problems kept her indoors for the last 10 years or so she was such a pleasant person that she always had visitors. I think that these two things kept her alive much longer than she would otherwise have been (she was quite ill the last 10 years). - 6/3/2009   7:35:24 AM
  • 32
    I think some people are mistaken about the picture at the top of this blog - I don't believe that is Jen and her grandmother, though the women in the picture are definitely related!

    I don't have a lot of longevity in my family. I am hoping that the health and lifestyle changes that both my parents and I have made will make a difference in how long we will live. My maternal grandfather died at 56 of a heart attack; my maternal grandmother died at 76 of emphysema (40 years of smoking), but she also had ovarian cancer. My paternal grandfather died at 61 of colon cancer; my paternal grandmother died at 84 of cancer.

    It's hard to look at those statistics and hope that I can beat the odds, but I'm determined to try! If that means doing more crosswords, reading lots of books, and having a social life will improve my longevity, then I'm willing to do it! Thanks for the article, Jen. - 6/3/2009   7:32:48 AM
    This is a scary thought, but one I must face. I already have short term memory loss due to haveing cerebral palsy. I am in my early twenties. What will life be like as I age? I enjoy playing cards and reading, so I will do more of this in the future. - 6/3/2009   7:24:46 AM
  • 30
    I read, play cards, and work puzzles because I enjoy them, not because I am getting old. I've been doing all of those things since I was 3 years old and I'm not about to stop now. My experience has been, that like most other things, it is the habit, more so than the activity itself, that is the greater factor. Taking up puzzles or bridge or chess when you are 90 isn't going to make you smarter. However, taking them up as a child and continuing them throughout life does make you smarter at any age because of the analytical and critical thinking skills they require. - 6/3/2009   7:11:52 AM
  • 29
    My grandmother passed away in January at 93. She was crazy active and quick witted until about age 90 when financial problems led her to leave her very social life in Florida and move near my children in NC. She depended on them for activities, which they provided three times a week but that wasn't enough stimulation and over the next three years her mind deteriorated til she could no longer ate or drank. My son took her to a rehab center to try to build her up but in a week she was gone. - 6/3/2009   7:01:14 AM
  • 28
    My Grandmother worked in her farm and sell produce in the market for years when we were in the caribbean. She looked early 50's instead of her 80 years. We relocated to England due to the volcanic crisis back home. She couldn't do farming or visit the neighbours to chat as she used to. She deteriorated so fast I wondered how could this be possible. She now has alzeimer's disease and though her looks didn't change much, her mind is shambles.

    I do think being active helps and also being connected with people...being able to visit friends /friends visiting and have a chat or play cards etc. - 6/3/2009   5:47:29 AM
  • 27
    My parents are in their early 80s and very active. They go walking every day at a park near their neighborhood, where they've made a lot of walking friends. My dad still walks 4 miles a day! They meet friends for Sunday brunch, and both are avid readers. Their doctor says they are poster children for senior citizens. They are my inspiration- if my dad can do it at 80, I surely can do it at 50! - 6/3/2009   5:34:47 AM
  • 26
    I lost my mom to alzheimers in 1992. Of course dementia is different from this disease. Now there is research being done on how to prevent and treat people who have this terrible disease.

    I definately agree that staying mentally active is key to maintaining mental clarity. - 6/3/2009   2:20:02 AM
    My great-grandmother was 'sent to bed' at 89 as she was having mini-heart attacks quite often. In the ensuing 10 years before she died, among other things, she wrote a book - longhand!
    My mother-in-law, on the other hand, rarely left her home, and refused to exercise (she said that going from her living room to the bathroom was exercise enough). She died at age 90, barely able to move, and with increasing dementia. She had gone from a 'sickly child' to a very strong adult with an alcoholic husband and 4 kids, then back to the 'sickly child' again. We heard the same stories from her childhood over and over again, and she didn't remember things that happened just a few minutes before.
    My parents are both 86 and, while not in 'perfect health,' they are well enough to spend a few weeks in Florida during the winter. They are very active in many organizations, plus they play bridge regularly.
    There is longevity in both (my husband's and my) families so we are looking forward to a nice, long retirement! We are working hard to eay healthy and exercise. - 6/3/2009   1:32:44 AM
    I believe we are in training for life - be it cross words, couch potato, working, biking - what ever. If we do it over and over again - it becomes. My Dad is 96 and going strong on his own. I'm 68, working full time and trying hard to stay physically and mentally active. Now if I could just loose these pounds that keep creeping - wow - I'd be close to perfect! :) - 6/2/2009   11:44:24 PM
  • 23
    Today would have been my grandmom's 97th birthday. She died last year about five weeks short of her 96th. She was feisty and lively until almost the very end. I think keeping in everyone's business kept her happy and lively. I miss her and her spirit! - 6/2/2009   10:49:49 PM
  • 22
    My great grandmother lived to be 106. She lived alone, walked to the grocery market alone, and cleaned her house by herself until she was 103. She was very coherent until then. She hardly ever took medicine or went to the doctor, and her diet consisted of homemade food - never fast food. She lived a long and healthy life because she stayed active and ate healthy. - 6/2/2009   10:30:23 PM
    I recall how my brain deterioated when I took an extended break from reading and playing games, etc. Now I say never again and have encorperated this as my plan for a few years now and I assist & encourage others to do the same. I also see significant differences in the senior citizens that I work with who indulge in games and creative activies and those who don't. - 6/2/2009   10:24:37 PM
  • 20
    My mother-in-law lived to 100 years and was a loving, dear woman to the end of her life. She worked crossword puzzles, loved to play Scrabble and Upwards, played cards, read books. She drove her car until 98 and mowed her lawn until 99 when her tractor mover broke down. She lived on her own until the last month of her life when she suffered a series of heart attacks. She was alert until she gently went home to Jesus. - 6/2/2009   9:16:43 PM
    I believe this! My grandmother won't read and do puzzles or anything... her parents ingrained in her head that they are a waste of time. But she sits and watches tv for hours on end. At family functions, she can be sitting in the midst of people who are even trying to converse with her, and she will ask to turn on the Tv. She is only 76 and she is in poor health. She keeps to herself and eats mostly junk food. I clean for a lady her age who is very independant and still social. She cooks good meals for herself and keeps her mind busy with reading and crafts. Working in retail, I see people on both sides of the spectrum and I think you're really onto something here! - 6/2/2009   9:09:37 PM
  • 18
    You guys look wonderful! I have five things that I have on my list to stay young and healthy: 1) exercise 2) good eating habit 3) sleep well 4) read books 5) stay away from stress. So far, I do well in: exercise, good diet, and books. I am still working on the sleep and stress issues. - 6/2/2009   8:51:59 PM
  • 17
    Jen your grandmother looks great!!! My mother-in- law lived till 93 on her own in a two bedroom unit and heaven help anyone that would suggest helping her with any of her chores, shoe kept house, still had dinner parties for 8 and kept her small garden neat and colourful, thankfully she died quiclkly after a stroke as she would not have liked to live inactivlely - 6/2/2009   7:52:36 PM
  • 16
    My Great Grandma passed away at 104. She lived with her son, my grandfather, after she turned 95. She was very active, very sharp and fun to talk to. At 100, my grandfather put her in a home so she could interact with others her age. She walked out and was halfway home when my grandfather found her. Wow what a chewing out he got. The only thing that seemed to throw her off was a tape recorder we were using to record her stories. She swore it wasn't her voice coming out of that thing-it didn't sound like her. The last 6 months of her life she started calling me by my mother's name and asking when I was going to get married. I miss her dearly. - 6/2/2009   7:43:54 PM
    It is important to remember that a study is a study is a study. There are studies on everything in the universe posted all over the internet so making inferences about things like dementia, weight loss, etc. from studies, even good ones should be taken with a grain of salt.

    My mother had Alzheimer's Disease and lived in a nursing home before she died. She was a wonderful, active, social person before and during her illness and up until her death. She played cards and did crossword puzzles, loved to read books about the psychology of crime (not novels), was fascinated by learning to use a computer, baked bread for her fellow nursing home inhabitants (I called them prisoners because that is how I felt about it at the time). When she was slightly younger she lived just fine on her own, cleaned he house, built furniture, was passionately interested in politics and everything else in life and she stayed that way to the end; however, she frequently forgot her name, her children's names, etc.; she became less functional the more other people took over the management of her life and was easily bullied by controlling people, scam artists who prey on the elderly and others.

    But as far as all those activities helping her avoid dementia, they didn't.

    She was also fairly physically active for a long time and I think that helped and I see this again and again in the elderly, that there is a link between physical exercise and staving off dementia and other signs of aging.

    I'd like to see more studies done on this link and would have to see I disagree with the study you cite on this issue in their seeming conclusion (at least in the way it is written in this article) that there is no link.

    I also think that there numerous other studies that show that items like card playing, crosswords, etc., while helpful, do not have much effect on retaining mental acuity in the elderly but that aggressively learning new and major skills and if possible working at a job that requires real skill sets and the learning of new skills, fluidity and physical and mental labor DO have an effect.

    Crosswords, cards, etc., would in my opinion only be useful as relaxation and would have little effect on increasing brain strength. - 6/2/2009   7:42:58 PM
  • 14
    My grandmother, who is now 83, has always been vibrant - she has travelled extensively, been very active physically walking daily and playing golf all summer, and very social playing cards, volunteering and singing in the church choir. She seems to have done everything right but about 4 years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She has remained very active and social but has had to move to a retirement home. Although the disease is progressing she has managed to maintain a positive outlook. I am hoping by doing things 'right' to cut my risk, but my grandmother shows that there are no guarantees. - 6/2/2009   7:15:31 PM
  • 13
    I havw witness this many of time, in my family and friends.
    Two of my favorite things are reading and playing brain puzzle games, doing any type of puzzles, TV is this brain sucking tool. (that commercial about ZULU is not too far off) Just saying.
    Notice how relax you become when you turn it off and start doing active things outside or inside .
    I'm just saying and I'm speaking from experience. - 6/2/2009   6:15:26 PM
  • U8RMY007
    Jen, your grandmother looks real good!

    Yeah, makes you reconsider your lifestyle. When I was younger, while stationed at FT Bragg, we would have junk parties all night and get up the next morning at 5 am and run a 7 minute mile pace for 10 miles. Boy, times has changes, can't run like that now. A good article :-).

    NSDQ007 - 6/2/2009   5:36:13 PM
  • 11
    My grandmother (father's side) will be 91 in December, she is very active. She gets up every morning at 5 am to feed the dog along with other things. I believe that because she stayed active, she is still going. My mind is still sharp as a tack and she can remember alot of stuff. I guess that the saying is true, exercise, eating right and wonderful island sunshine will keep you going.

    I guess that she's trying to teach us younger ones in the family a great lesson. I need to adopt her attitude and example to keep myself active. - 6/2/2009   5:24:38 PM
    I am so interested in so many things I'll never have the problem of picking up something new. As it is work gets in the way. I've often told people my retirement will be busier than when I was working. So much writing to do.... - 6/2/2009   4:18:01 PM
  • 9
    My grandmother, mother from my mom, was 97 when she passed away. She was nearly blind but would still learn different languages like French and English (she was Dutch). She had a great sense of humor and always stayed very young at heart. Always telling funny stories, it was always fun to be around her. Before bedtime she would do some exercises to relax and would also exercise her face muscles to fight wrinkles (her face was so smooth and had almost no wrinkles).

    My other grand mom, mother of my father, passed away at age 93. She loved crossword puzzles and watching/hearing news on tv or radio in different languages (she was also Dutch but she could speak more than 5 languages). She kept in touch with all her children and grandchildren who are living around the world (including me) by writing or sending postcards almost every week until she died. Her knowledge about other cultures, languages, people was remarkable. Traveling to other countries was one of her passions, even in her late eighties. I was also amazed that she would ride her bike, rain or shine, to get groceries or to go somewhere. I admired her independence. It was when she got hit by a car, when she was riding on her bike, at age 91, that she could not live on her own anymore. However in the nursing home she was still very active in the community, helping out other people to stay active to make them do exercises, - most were much younger. Both grand moms were very dedicated and loving mothers and grandmothers. They were both born in Indonesia from Dutch/German/Indonesian parents and came to Holland with their children after the war and they both lost their husbands. They both had each more than 10 children to take care of. My aunts took care of them until they passed away.

    Both my grand mom's didn't eat much red meat but mostly fish and chicken and a lot of vegetables. They both survived malaria in Indonesia but never got sick. These two women are an example of strength, mentally and physically, and were both born in the end of November (coincidence?). They were both very adventurous, brave and very young at heart. They enjoyed living, even in not so ideal circumstances, they would never become passive or negative.

    I hoped that my mother and father would live as long as their mothers. Unfortunately my father passed away at age 57 (he was a smoker and died of lung cancer) and my mother ten years later .They were both also very hard working and active but they mostly ate red meat and a lot of salt. My mother always suffered from health problems but was very sharp till she died. So she had the genes of her mothers. Very sharp. I wonder if the food made the difference since she had clogged arteries and needed surgery and died of complications. My grandmothers never fried food or used butter. Their diet was always very simple and mostly the same every day. They both grew their own food and were not exposed to processed food unlike my parents. Everything was fresh straight from the garden. I try to live like my grand mothers. Especially since my husband's grandmother died in her late sixties with Alzheimer. I hope he will never develop this disease and live long and healthy like the parents of his father (died in their late eighties and also didn't eat much red meat).

    I do belief that eating healthy and staying active is important and this is something that all our long living parents seem to have in common.
    - 6/2/2009   4:06:08 PM
  • 8
    I have a 95 year old mother-in-law... she moans that she can't remember the way she used to ...however, she is sharp as a tack and can literally run circles around me! We live a pretty good distance from her, but we try to get up to take her out once a week, at least. She seems to be much brighter and cohesive when we take her outside the home. She interfaces with all she meets, chatting up a storm and afterward remarking how nice it was to meet the people.."I love all the that a bad thing? " I love the little "old" lady, I am glad to have her in my life! - 6/2/2009   3:59:43 PM
  • 7
    I have a 92 year old grandmother (on my mother's side) that still gets around and does her thing. Sadly to say she drinks too much for her age, but the doctor told her daughter to let her b/c if she stops she very well might die. She still gets up and goes out to the bars...can you imagne? Yet along with that she loves to go to family functions and she has past her love of reading down through the generations. My mother is 72 and still getting around, so who knows where that leaves me. Though I do lack the social circle that both of them enjoy...we'll see! - 6/2/2009   3:51:48 PM
  • 6
    My grandma died this year at 87. She had dementia for about five years or so before she died. She did crossword puzzles, cards, word searches and read but didn't go out anymore with friends-just stayed home with my grandpa. Eventually, all she could do was play solitaire and do wordsearches. In the past, she did bridge club for many years and always did puzzles to "stay sharp". I wondered how she could've gotten dementia with all of the puzzles she did, but I guess she lacked the social life. - 6/2/2009   2:16:23 PM
  • 5
    My DH is 87, my dad is 86 and both are doing well. My DH is doing better because he is definitely more active and plays cards on his computer most every day.

    A person needs to be active to feel better and sleep better at night. Lack of sleep leads to muddled thinking. - 5/31/2009   7:51:33 PM
  • 4
    I believe staying active is a vital part of a long life. My grandmother lived to be 99 1/2 and she was on a bowling league and met with her friends daily at the home where she lived. My mother is 77 this year and nobody believes she is more than 55. She too stays active by walking every day, traveling as much as possible and playing solitare for hours on her computer. - 5/27/2009   9:19:49 AM
  • STEFFI264
    I wonder though if there is a gentetic component to the ability to do the very things that we have ascertained keep them from "losing it"
    Alzheimers runs in my family as well as my husband's, we have seen very active, dynamic people hit a wall right before they were diagnosed.
    My mother is doing all the things that the medical industry claims will help her delay onset of this horrible illness, crosswords, reading, eating right, staying active in the community, daily exercise etc.
    It will be interesting to see if she can avoid what she feels she is doomed to have.
    My poor children have the genes on both sides.

    - 5/26/2009   10:58:37 PM
  • 2
    My mom is 87 and used to get around really good. She went to church and still does regularly. We both volunteer at least once a month. She goes and plays cards once a week. She broke her back and had to have surgery. She still gets around until it heals up. She takes care of herself and we have to beg her not to walk the streets. I think she's really sharp. She's had 3 surgeries in the last 4 years. I think she's fairly sharp. She rarely asks for my help. I believe she is that way because she's so involved with her church and volunteering and cards. She also likes to do Soduko. - 5/26/2009   7:19:56 PM

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