What's Your Mental Fitness?
When you head to the gym to get your back and belly in shape, don't forget there's one more "B" you need to work out. It may be the most important one of all.
"Our brain is just like any other organ in the body," says Joseph Verghese, M.D. He's an associate professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "All of us, especially persons 62 or older, need to exercise our brains just as we would our bodies on a regular basis to keep them in great shape."
A host of research backs his claim that mental fitness routines work for older adults:
Researchers compared 10,079 members of the Swedish Twin Registry. They found that those who did "complex work" with mentally demanding tasks had less risk for dementia and Alzheimer's disease than those who didn't, the Journal of Gerontology reports. It is important to note, however, that although studies have shown a link between completing mentally demanding tasks and a reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease, the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren't sure whether these factors can actually prevent the disease.
A group of older men and women did computer memory and concentration games each day. The group scored higher on tests of their ability to think than people who watched educational films or stuck with their normal routine, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences concluded.
Healthy older adults who got "mental training" to boost memory, reasoning, and processing still performed at higher levels five years later. This study in the Journal of the American Medical Association involved 2,800 adults ages 65 to 96.
But isn't loss of brain function—especially memory and thinking ability—inevitable in the golden years?
A change in function
"While it's true that brain functioning changes as a natural part of aging around age 50, it isn't really lost," says Paul David Nussbaum, Ph.D. Dr. Nussbaum is a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He has written two books on brain health.
"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," he says. "But the ability to remember and access data is still there, so a person can be trained to improve both."
"As we age, sensory information gets encoded less accurately," adds Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Francisco. "The brain has to look and listen longer before it can make a decision about what it's seeing or hearing."
For example, Dr. Merzenich says, one of his studies showed older people were worse than college-age people at remembering two musical tones played in quick succession. But if the pace slows by even a tiny fraction of a second, the performance gap goes away. That slight slowing in pace gives the brain more time to process the information.
Dr. Merzenich and his colleagues came up with a computer program to help keep mature minds in step with younger ones. The program lets people retrain their brains to think faster with focused mental exercises.
During the training, older adults listen to recorded narratives and then answer questions about them. The narratives are first played slowly, then faster and faster. The person's processing speed increases bit by bit to keep up. Eventually, says Dr. Merzenich, the progress is clear. The change remains strong if the person keeps stimulating the mind on a routine basis with the training.
The benefits of mental training for older adults were shown in the first large-scale study of the subject. It's called the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study.
Benefits of training
Older adults trained in three areas, memory, speed of processing, and reasoning. Researchers saw long-term gains in all three areas, says study researcher Michael Marsiske. He's 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."
What makes these techniques and other mental exercises 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," he says.
To get the most from your mental workouts, make them part of a healthy lifestyle. Regular physical exercise, a balanced diet, and socialization head the list of good choices.
Remember that it takes work to keep your brain running smoothly.
"We spend more time in this country worrying about changing the oil in our cars than taking care of our brains," laments Dr. Nussbaum. "Hopefully, today's seniors are realizing that the brain is surprisingly resilient—and, with a little effort—capable of compensating for the accumulated assaults of aging."