Mental Workout

The old adage, “use it or lose it” is true not only when exercising the muscles of the body, but also the brain. Neuroscience research is continually revealing that building cognitive reserve is beneficial to maintaining mental alertness and to decreasing one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Staying mentally active doesn’t mean we have to master 5-star Sudoku every day, but it does mean turning off the television, a notoriously passive activity. The key is to actively engage the brain in novel ways. This could mean breaking out of old routines and learning something new, or simply doing something old in a new way. Activities that stimulate and challenge us intellectually seem to be best.

Exercise your mind

A lifestyle that includes stimulating mental activity, especially in the context of social interaction, is clearly correlated with healthy brain ageing and  has been a consistent finding from large, well-designed studies of older adults. The largest controlled clinical trial to date, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and reported in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that cognitive training sessions improved the memory, concentration and problem-solving skills of healthy adults 65 and older.

The effects were powerful and long-lasting, effectively erasing seven to 14 years of normal cognitive decline and persisting for at least two years.

The NIH trial follows numerous smaller studies that have shown varying degrees of benefits from specific types of training. A common theme that has emerged is that cognitive training can improve older adults’ ability to maintain day-to-day activities, and that the skills learned can enhance functioning on similar-minded tasks, but may not transfer to other aspects of cognition. For example, memory training might improve recall, but may not help with problem-solving.

Cognitive training

In the largest clinical trial ever conducted to test the usefulness of cognitive training interventions (dubbed the “ACTIVE” trial), study subjects engaged in three types of training exercises.

Memory training included strategies for remembering word lists and sequences of items, text material, and main ideas and details of stories.

Reasoning skills involved training in how to solve problems that follow patterns, strategies that can be used in tasks such as reading a bus schedule or filling out an order sheet.

Speed-of-processing training focused on the ability to identify and locate visual information quickly, which can be applied to tasks such as looking up a phone number, finding information on medicine bottles and responding appropriately to traffic signs.

Immediately following the five-week training period, 87 per cent of participants in speed training, 74 per cent of participants in reasoning training, and 26 per cent of participants in memory training demonstrated reliable improvement on the respective cognitive ability. The training effects continued through a two year follow-up period, particularly for the participants who received “booster” training.

Engaging your brain

Though more research is needed on which types of activity are best, most brain experts are convinced that staying mentally active throughout life is good advice. “We can make the brain work better by simply accumulating more knowledge, which builds more networks of connections in the brain,” says James McGaugh, PhD, at University of California, Irvine. Acquiring more knowledge – and therefore building more nerve connections – may enable our brain to essentially compensate for, or at least forestall, any age-associated loss of synaptic connections that may occur. In other words, our brain would be better equipped to forge alternate pathways of nerve connections to accomplish mental tasks. There is evidence from brain imaging studies that older people who maintain mental sharpness do in fact harness alternate brain pathways to accomplish the same tasks as younger people.

The brain is a learning machine. It craves novelty and challenge. Acquiring new skills and seeking out new experiences – rather than simply repeating the same old routines – will help ensure the machine continues to perform at its best.

Social interactions

Maintaining social ties is another factor that has been consistently correlated with healthy brain ageing. For example, Claudia Kawas has been following a second group of 1,100 adults age 90 and above since 1981. One clear finding, she says, is that “people seem to do better if they get out of their houses and interact with other individuals, even if that interaction is not particularly sophisticated. You don’t necessarily have to take French classes.” The more contact people have with others, the better they seem to do cognitively, she says.

Activities that not only use your senses but also have you engaging with other human beings can be a great form of brain exercise. Social activities such as dancing, attending wine-tastings or other social events, playing cards, travelling with friends, golfing or taking yoga classes are some examples experts give that could fit the bill. A large study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who engaged in leisure activities such as learning to play a musical instrument or dancing were less likely to develop dementia. Dancing may be especially beneficial to the brain because it combines physical activity with social interaction and often involves a cognitive challenge in learning dance steps.

Keep your memory sharp

What may seem like a faltering memory may in fact be a decline in the rate at which we learn and store new information. Practice these memory skills to enhance learning and make remembering easier.

RELAX: Tension and stress are associated with memory lapses and managing stress improves memory

CONCENTRATE: Your teachers were right: if you want to recall something later, pay attention

FOCUS: Try to reduce distractions and minimise interferences

SLOW DOWN: If you are rushing, you may not be focused or paying full attention

ORGANISE: Keep important items in a designated place that is visible and easily accessed

WRITE IT DOWN: Carry a notepad and calendar, and write down important things

REPEAT IT:  Repetition improves recall; use it when meeting new people and learning new things

VISUALISE IT: Associating a visual image with something you want to remember can improve recall

The material on this page “Brain Health – Mental Workout” has been used with the kind permission from the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.