May 17, 2013

To many people, one of the more frightening parts of growing older is the prospect of diminished mental capacity. The loss of brain function that enables us to easily remember names, dates, and events, quickly complete day to day tasks, and remain independent, whether it’s caused by Alzheimer’s or another condition, can be devastating for friends and family to deal with. We’d all like to avoid mental decline. But can we?

Train Your Brain

Can brain games like sudoku and crossword puzzles help slow the progression of certain symptoms of mental decline? In short, we need more studies to know for sure. But research so far indicates that in adults with normal brain function consistently engaging the brain may help keep thinking skills from declining as rapidly as they would without the activity.

One large study of cognitive training was published in 2002. The study, called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) showed that a significant percentage of the 2,802 participants age 65 and older who trained for five weeks, about two and a half hours per week, improved their memory, reasoning skills, and information-processing speed. The effects were also shown to last for at least five years. “The improvements seen after the training roughly counteract the degree of decline in cognitive performance that we would expect to see over a seven- to 14-year period among older people without dementia,” says Dr. Willis.

It is difficult to study the effects of mental activities on dementia directly. But some research indicates that staying mentally active may delay the onset of some of the symptoms associated with dementia. A 2009 study followed 488 study participants age 75 to 85 and tracked how often they read, wrote, did crossword puzzles, played board or card games, participated in group discussions, or played music. The researchers found that every day per week that a person engaged in one of these six mentally-stimulating leisure activities delayed the onset of dementia by about two months.

In addition, certain studies in animals have shown that mental stimulation may help prevent dementia by decreasing certain hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, supporting new nerve growth, and encouraging nerve cells to communicate. More research is needed to show whether or not these changes happen in humans, and whether they actually relate to dementia prevention. The take-home message: mental exercise won’t hurt you, and may actually do a world of good in keeping you mentally sharp.

Active Body, Active Mind

There is another kind of exercise that has been shown to help us maintain brain function — the physical kind. As we age, we begin to lose what’s called our “executive function” — a group of abilities that allow you to choose the set of actions right for the job at hand. Executive function guides our abilities to process what’s going on and how fast we respond to it. It also guides our working memory, the type that helps us juggle pieces of information short-term, such as a phone number between looking it up and placing the call.

We start to lose our executive function around age 70. But studies have shown that active people tend to maintain their executive function much better than inactive people. This even holds true for formerly inactive people who amp up the exercise later in life, even starting in their 70s. And moderate exercise was enough — one study showed 30 minutes to an hour of walking a few times a week did the trick.

It’s also been shown that exercising can help keep dementia at bay. Exercising regularly drops the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by two-thirds. Even starting an exercise program in your 60s reduces the risk by half.

So while cognitive training can help sustain your brain function, if you want to help prevent dementia, it’s probably also a good idea to shut the book and head outside for a walk. San Antonio has been blessed with a great Spring.  Your body and brain will both thank you!