An intriguing report on trends in brain fitness from SharpBrains, a market research company focused on applications of brain research, predicts more brain-health offerings in senior living communities and health clubs…development of programs that combine physical and mental fitness into one workout…and broad-based government initiatives along the lines of JFK’s emphasis on physical fitness in the early 1960s. Underscoring that report, a recent AARP Research Poll found that American adults ranked brain health second only to heart health as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Daily Health News spoke with Cynthia R. Green, PhD, an assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and president of Memory Arts, LLC, a provider of science-based brain-fitness training to individuals, corporations and organizations, to see what she suggests for those of us who want to incorporate mental training into our wellness routines. She said it’s an excellent idea to make a daily effort to remain intellectually engaged, which will help enhance your cognitive abilities as you age. In particular, she suggests…
BUILD UP A COGNITIVE RESERVE
Research demonstrates that an active brain is associated with better cognitive health and a reduced risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Researchers found that participants who spent time on activities such as reading newspapers, playing puzzle games or listening to the radio frequently were 47% less likely to develop AD than those who did them less often. It’s possible that these activities protect the brain by establishing a “cognitive reserve,” helping it become more adaptable and flexible in some areas to compensate for declines in others.
DO DIFFICULT THINGS
Evidence shows that mental stimulation also enhances the brain’s networks of connections and encourages “brain plasticity” (the brain’s ability to physically and functionally change). Cross-train your brain by doing things you haven’t done before, perhaps learning a new language or to play a new musical instrument. To stay sharp, Dr. Green advises that you continually find new projects and hobbies to challenge your intellectual skills. Take a class at the local community college or take a free course online—universities that offer online courses at no charge include Carnegie Mellon University (cmu.edu/oli/)… Massachusetts Institute of Technology (ocw.mit.edu)… and Tufts University (ocw.tufts.edu).
PLAY BRAIN-TRAINING GAMES
There are many ways, both offline and online, to engage in fun, daily mental workouts that are efficient and effective:
• Do crossword puzzles, Sudoku and jigsaws. Go to JigZone.com for jigsaw and other puzzles.
• Memorize a new word and definition each day at Wordsmith.org.
• Try the brain games and teasers at SharpBrains.com.
• Watch game shows… and participate. Programs like Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right can not only entertain, but also exercise your brain as well. Check your local television listings for scheduling information. Or go online at Wheel of Fortune to play.
CHANGE IT UP
If you’re right-handed, try doing things left-handed, and vice versa. For example, make phone calls using your less dominant hand. Break up your usual routine—for instance, changing the order of your morning activities or figuring out as many different driving routes to work as you can.
PLAN ENRICHMENT ACTIVITIES
Listen to music—especially classical music. The so-called “Mozart Effect” enhances learning. In one small study, college students showed improvements in spatial-temporal intelligence (the ability to mentally manipulate objects in three-dimensional space) after listening to about 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata. You can also engage your brain by visiting museums and looking at different kinds of art. Attend speeches and lectures on topics of interest—or on subjects you know nothing whatsoever about. It’s never too late to enrich your life culturally and academically, and learning is exercise for the brain.
BEAT THE CLOCK
Not your biological clock—an actual clock. Dr. Green recommends timed activities, which force you to pay attention, work quickly and flexibly, and look at information in different ways. Time yourself, and try to speed up activities to meet challenges you set—putting away groceries or folding laundry, for instance. You can also play timed games such as chess or Boggle with family or friends—or on your own online. At NYTimes.com, for $6.95/month or $39.95/year, you can purchase access to the daily puzzle online, and on iPhone and iPad apps, as well as access to their archive of 20 years of puzzles, including acrostics and variety puzzles.
There are also software products and computer games that may improve attention, information processing and memory, with evidence suggesting that they are quite useful. In the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial, healthy adults age 65 and over received 10 sessions of memory training, reasoning training or speed of processing training. The sessions not only improved their mental skills in the area in which they were trained, the improvements lasted for at least five years.
Dr. Green recommends that you choose a game that increases the level of difficulty as your skills improve, much as a personal trainer does with athletic training. Programs include games, such as Brain Age from Nintendo, and computer software such as Fit Brains and Lumosity.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
The bottom line is that there are many strategies that you can undertake to keep your brain active and enhance cognitive fitness. The key is to stay stimulated: Use it or lose it.