GREAT BARRINGTON -- When it comes to a monthly wordsmith competition, the folks at the Claire Teague Senior Center know they're actually competing with Joe Tuzzo, who at 104, is the man to beat.
Senior center officials in Great Barrington promote brain fitness activities, such as the monthly competition that starts with one word and from which players then form new ones using the available letters.
In May, the word was "memorial."
When Tuzzo turned in his list, he had come up with 216 words. With words scribbled on both sides of a sheet of paper, his list included names like "Mira," historical figures like "Mao," and a range of other words from "liar" to "lima.
Tuzzo pointed to the word "Amare" and said, "That's a basketball player," referencing New York Knicks player Amare Stoudemire.
"I've always had a fascination for words," said the former science teacher and Great Barrington resident. "Occasionally I check the dictionary to see a word."
Tuzzo also describes himself as a formidable bridge player. On Tuesday, he was deep into one of the card games -- so focused, in fact, a reporter couldn't break him away for an interview.
An older adult's passion for learning or playing challenging games only benefits positive mental function, according to a 2012 special health report from Harvard University. In the study, the characteristic that correlated most with long-term memory in older adults was a person's level of education.
Other positive habits to retain long-term memory include exercise, not smoking, maintaining a healthy diet, getting a good night's sleep, cultivating social support, and taking vitamins that could include vitamins C and E.
Tuzzo said he's a nonsmoker and he doesn't drink hard liquor. He eats healthy and attributes his health to good genes.
"I don't feel 104; I feel 70," he said.
Polly Mann, the director the Claire Teague Senior Center, said, "It's really interesting to keep your mind going that way" in reference to Tuzzo.
For the wordsmith competitions, senior center officials review the submitted lists of words and make sure the words are familiar.
"Everybody is shocked" when Tuzzo announces how many words he's come up with, Mann said.
"I am pretty sure I couldn't do it," she said.
"He'll get over 200 [words from the one], and I don't think I've ever come up with 200," said fellow competitor Joe Lockwood, of Alford. "I think I've come up with 182."
Tuzzo attributes his wordsmithing to a methodical review of each letter of a word and then pairing it with a neighboring letter to identify potential matches.
Following his win for coming up with 216 words from "memorial," Tuzzo said he received a book of word puzzles.
To reach John Sakata:
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @JSakata