Build a Buff Brain
"Okay, let's work those cerebrums and cerebellums harder, ladies and gents. Remember, no strain, no gain--and someday no brain."
Sound like a fitness class for the brain? It's not as far-fetched as you might think.
"Our brain is just like any other organ in the body," says Joseph Verghese, M.D., an associate professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. "We need to exercise our brains just as we would our bodies on a regular basis to keep them in great shape."
Studies show we can slow or even prevent brain problems that were long thought to be part of aging--memory loss, slower information processing, and declining ability to reason. What's important, experts say, is to start young.
"The brain is 'plastic' to the end of life, and can be strengthened through conditioning," says Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of California-San Francisco. "The earlier one gets into the 'brain gym,' the more likely that there will be lasting benefits."
"While it's true that brain functioning changes as a natural part of aging around age 50, it isn't really lost," adds Paul David Nussbaum, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "We don't process as fast, and retrieval of data is a bit harder because there's a lifetime of stored information to sort through. But the ability to remember and access data is still there."
Training can help you do better at both.
How does "brain exercise" work? Dr. Merzenich cites one of his own studies as an example.
"We developed a software program that allows individuals to retrain their brains to think faster with focused mental exercises," he says. "It's like a retired musician who can recover his or her skill with an instrument with more intense practice."
During the training, people listen to recordings and then answer questions about them. The recordings are first played slowly, then faster and faster. The person's processing speed rises bit by bit to keep up. In time, Dr. Merzenich says, the progress is clear. The change stays in force if the person keeps pressing the mind on a routine basis with the training.
The benefits of mental training for older people were shown in a large-scale study. It's called the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study.
Participants were trained in three areas, memory, speed of processing, and reasoning. Researchers saw long-term gains in all three areas, says study researcher Michael Marsiske, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida. "We found evidence that the training transferred to everyday activities as well, such as cooking, taking medication and managing finances.
Heading off problems
"Our data also suggest that such conditioning started during the 40s or 50s may help retard mental decline as we reach the golden years," he adds.
What makes these techniques--as well as mental exercises such as crosswords, math puzzles, board games, and playing instruments--work? Dr. Verghese says they probably increase blood flow to the brain, stimulate new connections between nerve cells, and even help form new cells. This leads to a reserve of brain cells that gives us "the ability to bounce back from the natural cell loss of aging without losing functioning ability at the same time," he says.
Finding ways to work your brain isn't hard, Dr. Nussbaum says. "It can be almost anything that lifts your mental gears a gear higher--reading, writing in a diary, travel, learning a language, bird-watching. Just make sure it's an activity that you'll do more than once."
To get the most from your mental workouts, the experts suggest you make them part of a healthy lifestyle. Physical exercise, a balanced diet, and social contact head the list of good choices.
Remember, it takes work to keep your brain running smoothly. It's never too early to begin.
"We spend more time in this country worrying about changing the oil in our cars than taking care of our brains," Dr. Nussbaum laments. "Hopefully, we're finally realizing that the brain is surprisingly resilient." With a little effort, it can make up for the assaults of time.
Five steps to a healthier brain
Dr. Nussbaum offers his five keys to brain health:
1. Physical activity. Get routine aerobic exercise. A healthy heart and good circulation will aid your brain, which relies on a strong flow of blood.
2. Mental stimulation. Any regular activity that challenges the mind will help strengthen links among brain cells. It can even prompt formation of new cells.
3. Good nutrition. The brain is 60 percent fat; it's the body's fattiest organ. This fat helps allow nerve transmission. Dr. Nussbaum says foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, help maintain the good fat in the brain without putting bad fat on the waist. "Other foods that promote brain health are ones with antioxidants such as red grapes, fruit juices, and green leafy vegetables," he says. Drink alcohol only in moderation. More than a drink or two a day may harm your brain.
4. Spirituality. This means finding peace and balance in life, he says. "Studies have shown that brains exposed to too much stimuli stop functioning," he says. "So we have to learn when to say 'no' to some of life's demands and carve out time--even 30 minutes a day--to let our brains rest."
5. Socialization. "Research indicates that people who isolate themselves from others are more likely candidates for dementia in their senior years," he says. "Don't retire and watch life pass you by. Do volunteer work, join a hobby club, take dancing lessons--stay connected with other human beings."
For some time, studies have shown an association between many of the above-mentioned activities and a reduced risk for cognitive decline and diseases affecting cognition such as Alzheimer's disease. But the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren’t sure whether these factors can actually prevent cognitive decline and other diseases affecting the brain.