It seems medical and science researchers are always trying to figure out how to improve the human species—and with good cause: We’re hanging around a lot longer these days. But while 50 might be the new 30, there’s still those 20 years of wear and tear to account for.
Until recently, expert advice has centered on staying active, eating well and avoiding anything that could cause cancer. Now there’s also an increased focus on cognitive well-being and extending “brainspan.” Chances are you’ve heard about mental fitness and its potential impact on age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
A recent study by the National Institute on Aging determined that by 2040, 84 million people worldwide will likely suffer from age-related mental decline. Even now, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s is alarming. According to Kathryn Jedrziewski, deputy director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Pennsylvania, 40 to 50 percent of seniors over 85 will get dementia by 2040. “People used to die before they were old enough to get dementia,” says Jedrziewski, adding that as we live longer, brain maintenance is a growing concern.
The brain ages at different speeds, but memory and reasoning typically begin to decline at around 60. The areas most affected are brain processing speed and accuracy; problem solving; and focus, attention and memory. “As we age, our brain’s speed of cognition slows down,” says Jason Karlawish, associate director of Penn’s Memory Center. “We take longer to organize facts and code them into our memory.”
Luckily, evidence suggests that by reducing stress and challenging the brain through memory exercises, cognitive impairments don’t have to be inevitable. Even in old age, the human brain can rewire itself. While severe cases of mental decline such as Alzheimer’s are typically caused by disease, most age-related brain deficiencies are the result of inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association identifies the four major components to staying healthy later in life as mental stimulation, physical activity, social connectedness and a healthful diet.
A National Institute of Aging study found that over a period of five years, brief sessions of brain exercise could have a long-lasting, positive impact on seniors’ mental fitness. Training and assessments were done in the areas of processing, memory and reasoning, with participants attending hour-long classes and using the computer. Even simple tasks such as organizing grocery lists into categories and identifying flashing objects on a computer were found to stimulate the brain and help raise test scores throughout the five-year study period.
Despite the findings, local experts caution against getting carried away with a strict regime of brain teasers and memory exercises. “There’s a lot of talk, but more scientific studies—real clinical trials—need to happen before we can draw clear conclusions,” says Jedrziewski. “We can’t tell people, ‘Do this and you won’t have to worry about Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.’ But we can say that the earlier you start to make health-minded changes—whether it’s diet, exercise or brain training—the greater chance you’ll have of reaping the benefits.”
And results can vary drastically by individual. “A person of 70 can be similar to someone who’s 20,” says Karlawish. “Other factors come into play. The higher level of education you have, the lower the chance of developing a cognitive disease—but that’s associated with other socioeconomic sources and conditions.”
But like Jedrziewski, Karlawish isn’t going to discourage anyone from loading up on crossword puzzles or learning new card games. “If you enjoy these activities, then, by all means, have fun,” he says. “But if they make you anxious, forget it. The brain is a feeling organ just as much as it is a thinking organ. Engaging in something you really don’t enjoy can create anxiety. Chronic anxiety and depression can negatively affect cognitive function.”
Short-term memory is a greater concern for Karlawish. It’s an area he believes is crucial in determining a person’s potential for brain-related issues. “Frequent failure of short-term memory is definitely a red flag,” he says.
Mixing It Up
Karlawish recommends intertwining a little mental gymnastics with a healthy diet and physical exercise, managing stress and maintaining a social life. Exercise plays a large role simply because the more active you are, the more effectively your heart pumps blood. Good circulation increases the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity, ensuring better flow to the brain and improving alertness. Controlling blood pressure, reducing weight and cholesterol, treating/preventing diabetes and not smoking are all equally important for maintaining brain health as we age.
Your brain also has specific dietary requirements, starting with a steady flow of glucose. Skipping breakfast or eating foods high in sugar and carbohydrates and low in fiber has been found to impair performance at school and at work.
You might need a medical dictionary to decipher all the different nutrients, natural chemicals and chain reactions involved when you eat, but if you start with the basics, you’re already one step ahead of the game. Small adjustments can make a big difference. Start by eating five small meals a day and increasing your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants (especially beta-carotene and vitamins C and E) and low-glycemic carbohydrates like whole grains. Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, fish tops the list when it comes to brain food. And avoid candy, baked goods and chips. Highly processed snacks contain trans-fatty acids, which have been linked to dyslexia, ADHD and even autism.
If you’ve already made these and other lifestyle changes, adding a mental exercise regime can only help. Practicing targeted activities that engage your senses and require refined motor skills can enhance perception, long- and short-term memory, and visuospatial, logic and verbal abilities. Learning to juggle or dance and doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles are other fun ways to work out the kinks.
Like a good workout regimen at the gym, mental exercise seems to strengthen the brain—and John Trojanowski, director of the Penn’s Institute on Aging, thinks this is a good thing. “One of the best ways to reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s is to stay active in mind and body,” he says.
There’s no definitive evidence on the benefits of brain-training exercises and software, but it can’t hurt to try the following.
MindFit. An interactive system that aims to train individuals in 14 skills over nine months. The software learns about you through your performance and then customizes the program. Recommended training time is 20 minutes three times a week for eight weeks. Focus areas: working memory, visual and auditory short-term memory, planning, location memory, naming, time estimation, divided attention and hand-eye coordination. $139; (888) 769-6463, vigorousmind.com.
Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day. For Nintendo DS, these fun mental workouts incorporate voice-command and touch-screen capabilities. Exercises include Sudoku puzzles, reading aloud, doing math, memorizing words, counting and tracking people as they enter and exit a house, and drawing lines to connect letters and numbers in alphabetical and numeric order. $19.99; brainage.com.
Brain Fitness 2.0. Forty hours of computer-based instruction in six areas that focus on improving listening ability. Recommended training time: one session a day five days a week for eight weeks. Claims to restore memory and processing speed. $395 (home version); (800) 514-3961, positscience.com.
1. Use it (so you don’t lose it). Memory training that emphasizes verbal skills can be done throughout the day via brain teasers, crossword puzzles and memory exercises.
2. Eat a balanced diet. Omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains and antioxidants can give your brain a boost. Eating five small meals throughout the day prevents dips in blood glucose levels—and glucose is the primary energy source for the brain.
3. Stay physically fit. Take brisk daily walks and stretch. Staying active has been found to lessen the risk of Alzheimer’s.
4. Reduce stress. Stress causes the body to release cortisol, which can impair memory and has been found to shrink the memory centers in the brain. Try stretching and relaxation exercises.
5. Don’t retire too early. According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, retirement can lead to an 11 percent decline in mental health and an eight percent increase in difficulty performing daily activities.