By Sondra Forsyth
We all know that neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's can ravage the human mind. Yet even for those of us who are mercifully spared the cognitive decline that comes with disease, the mere passage of time can render us less mentally fit than we once were. The good news, though, is that a number of highly respected sources say that a loss of lucidity and memory is not inevitable as our healthy brains age.
For starters, the Mayo Clinic has endorsed a regimen of physical and mental exercises to keep your gray (and white) matter in top shape decade after decade. Other experts offer tips on taking advantage of "neuroplasticity" not only to hang on to the neurons you already have but also to create new ones no matter how old you are. Here are the key finding
Computer Use Plus Physical Activity: A Synergistic Interaction
A Mayo Clinic study done in 2012 showed that teaming computer use with moderate exercise produced a remarkable synergistic effect that appears to reduce the odds of experiencing memory loss. This protection held true even for people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Since you're reading this, we know you're already a computer user. Now make sure you don't skip your thrice-weekly walk or whatever else you've designated as your favorite way to get moving. Your brain will thank you for that!
Brain Fitness Games: Some With a Price Tag, But They Appear to Work
If ordinary computer use is a brain booster, what about virtual games designed especially to give your mind a workout? Are they a rip-off or a real defense against cognitive decline? According to the Minnesota Medical Association, Mayo Clinic neuropsychologist Glenn Smith, Ph.D. was skeptical when a company called Posit Science asked him his opinion about the line of Brain Fitness software available on the Happy Neuron website. The options range from free online games to a program that costs a whopping $400.
Smith took a close look and pointed out scientific flaws in Posit's research. That's why he originally dismissed the claims of success. But Posit paid attention and went on to do research that was more rigorous. As a result, the Brain Fitness software is now used by patients participating in the Mayo Clinic’s "Healthy Activities to Benefit Independence and Thinking" (HABIT) program. Research at the University of California, San Francisco, also endorses the brain games. Some studies continue to question the software's value, however, so the jury is still out. But at the very least, why not give the free games a try?
Novel Challenges: Out With Old, In With the New
A plethora of studies aimed at discovering whether humans are able to develop new neurons and synapses in the later years has shown that, yes, we can do exactly that. The adult brain, once thought to be immutable, turns out to have "plasticity" that allows for lifelong learning. One of the first investigations that stumbled onto this welcome finding was a now-classic study of songbirds. The pejorative phrase "bird brain" turns out to be misguided. Feathered suitors, in their competition for mates, are able to learn new come-hither tunes long after reaching adulthood.
Studies that followed this one showed that the secret to activating neuroplasticity is to get out of routines and ruts. Some researchers recommend learning a new language. Others simply advocate making small changes such as driving a different route to work or trying ethnic cuisines you've never sampled before or moving your furniture so you're not always sitting in the same chair and looking at the same wall. Still other studies contend that the ultimate brain-enhancing exercise is dancing, at least those forms that demand new moves rather than the ones you learn by rote. For more on the mental benefits of tripping the light fantastic, see our earlier ThirdAge article here: http://www.thirdage.com/brain-fitness/dancing-defeats-dementia
SharpBrains: A Think Tank Devoted to Mental Acuity
SharpBrains.com is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking brain fitness and applied neuroplasticity trends. The company has received positive press in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and on CNN, among other respected media outlets. AARP recently named The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness a "Best Book" on the subject. You might want to check out the site even if you decide not to spring for the book.
The bottom line? The old adage that goes "use it or lose it" applies to your brain just as much as it does to your body. Let's all make a vow to remain active mentally as well as physically in an effort to keep the cognitive cogs in peak working order. Here's to fewer Senior Moments, more times when you can remember a name or recall where you put your car keys, and a mind that stays agile as long as you live!
Sondra Forsyth is Co-Editor-in-Chief of ThirdAge.com.