Keep Your Noggin Fit with Brain Exercise
The dog ran. The dog barked. The dog raced.
What else did the dog do?
That many seem like a silly question. But the act of thinking up verbs to go with nouns pumps extra blood into your brain, according to brain scans.
Getting more blood to the brain is an important way to counteract the effects of aging, says Thomas Budzynski, Ph.D., an affiliate professor of psychosocial and community health at the University of Washington.
"If there's one general thing that happens as people age, it's that they show decreased cerebral blood flow in certain areas. If you can increase the blood flow, then the neurons will be better nourished," Dr. Budzynski explains.
Variety of exercises
Dr. Budzynski has developed brain exercises designed to increase cerebral blood flow. There are many such exercises, such as the process of adding verbs to several nouns. There's also serial subtracting. That involves beginning with a number such as 900, and then subtracting any number from it -- say seven. So you get 893, and then you subtract seven from that to get 886... and so forth.
"It's like lifting weights in the gym: it doesn't always feel good, but it's awfully good for your brain," Dr. Budzynski says.
The exercises include visualizing, which stimulates a different part of the brain. For example, Dr. Budzynski asks listeners to visualize a schoolroom from childhood.
Doing the exercises is great, but just doing something novel is good for your brain, too. That's because as you age, a percentage of your brain's neurons die. You can still create new dendrites, however. They are the connections between the neurons. They grow from neurons, like branches grow from a tree, when you do brain exercises or just think or see new things. The dendritic networks make a model to comprehend those things.
So your goal is to make more dendrites. They are as vital to mental dexterity as phone lines are to phone networks.
"If you keep changing the input, the brain keeps adding more networks," Dr. Budzynski says. "The stranger, the better. The more novel, the better."
Diet and exercise also important
Getting physical exercise and eating low-fat diet are important, too, for their benefits to the rest of the body certainly apply to the brain.
The chemistry of the brain is complex, and does not necessarily improve with age. For example, over the years, stress produces cortisol, which damages the glial cells that provide nutrients to the neurons in your hippocampus, a part of the brain. Your hippocampus helps handle, among other things, short-term memory.
But it's wrong to assume that older people can't compensate for those physical changes. There is evidence from studies in other countries that some memory deficits in older Americans may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our culture expects older people to have short-term memory loss, and so they do. In China, older individuals are respected, and do not show the same memory problems, Dr. Budzynski says.
Research by a Harvard scientist showed that presenting older people with subliminal positive words and phrases regarding effective memory actually increased their scores on memory tests, he says. So older folks can keep their minds sharp, even if they can't do everything they could when they were 17.
It's also important for older people to have lots of activities, including frequent socializing with others, Dr. Budzynski says. Consider taking up hobbies, chess, crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument or a challenging volunteer position. Interact with others on the Internet, but get out with real people, too.