Keep your brain nimble as you age
Older people can protect their minds by breaking a mental sweat
By Allison Van Dusen / Forbes / May 13, 2007
Wrinkles, gray hair, age spots. There are lots of downsides to aging. Losing the mind, though, tops the list
for many people.
But fear not. Just as research has demonstrated how important physical exercise is to aging
well, experts now say there are things we can do to reduce our risk of mental decline, or even reverse it. It's called the
mental workout, and as baby boomers search for more ways to enjoy their longevity, interest
in it is beginning to explode.
"People are saying, 'I want to live long, but I want to do it on my terms,'" says Michael Patterson, who runs
the brain fitness program Staying Sharp, a joint project of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives & NRTA: AARP's Educator Community. "They're saying, 'I could live with a little bit of physical
decline, but I don't want any decline in my cognitive abilities. So what can I do about it?'"
That's a question scores should be asking. It's estimated that about 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, including 4.9 million people age 65 & older. The Alzheimer's Association predicts that by 2050, the number of people
age 65 & over with Alzheimer's could range from 11 million to 16 million, unless science finds a way to prevent or treat the disease.
Those are scary numbers, particularly for an aging generation of baby boomers.
Some risk factors for dementia, which is most commonly caused by Alzheimer's disease, simply aren’t reversible, such as genetics.
though, brain plasticity studies have shown the brain can rewire itself into old age & even add new cells in response
to stimulation. Researchers say some people may have a better shot of maintaining their brain health by adopting a few preventive
strategies, such as using computer programs & making lifestyle changes.
In the medical world, computer
software has been used for years to help people who have suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries regain specific mental abilities, says Alvaro Fernandez, co-founder & chief executive officer
of SharpBrains.com, a Web site promoting awareness of science-based cognitive training.
Interest in this new frontier of wellness is now mainstream & the market has responded with a host of products,
ranging from portable games such as Nintendo's "Brain Age" to more science-based software, such as Posit Science's "Brain
Posit Science CEO Jeff Zimman says the program is the only one on the market backed by published scientific
studies, which show that healthy people over age 60 on average experienced the equivalent of a 10-year improvement on standardized
cognitive tests after using the product.
many of whom had little to no previous computer experience, have self-reported improvements in everything from their ability
to remember names to feeling more confidence & optimism, he says.
The San Francisco-based company began selling the program to retirement communities in 2005 & it's now used
in 130 facilities across the country & in Canada.
targets the neurological processes necessary for accurate listening, effective thinking & a strong memory. In one exercise, users get a list of instructions asking them to
move cartoon characters to onscreen spots. The goal is to sharpen the memory, enabling people to recall, say, a grocery list.
CogniFit, a company established in Israel in 1999 that recently began marketing products in the U.S., offers
a computer-training product called "MindFit." Its level of difficulty increases as users' skills improve, keeping them constantly challenged.
The company also announced last month it has developed new software designed to get the typical employee to challenged his or her mind. The corporate program will assess users & sharpen their cognitive skills for 10 to 15 minutes a day.
sees the product as a way for businesses to potentially lure older workers to stay on the job longer & keep workers of
all ages mentally fit.
If using your computer as a mental gym sounds good to you, SharpBrains.com's
Fernandez suggests asking a few questions first to determine a product's benefits & whether it's worth the money. Do neuropsychologists
& peer-reviewed research support the program? Does the product indicate what part of the brain it exercises?
"Some programs are entertainment," Fernandez says," & some are exercise."
Change your life
Not everyone, however, is convinced that computer programs are the
way to go.
"I don't think that they've proved that they stop Alzheimer's," says Dr. Robert Butler, CEO of the International Longevity Center-USA, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan research, policy & education
organization that helps communities address the issue of aging.
could save some money by having a nice book club or learning a new language. There may be a benefit but I'm not sure
you have to buy a computer game to keep up your brain health."
Both the International Longevity Center-USA and the Staying Sharp program advocate intellectual stimulation,
physical exercise & a healthy diet to keep your mind in top shape.
such as learning a new instrument, has been found to have a protective effect against cognitive decline, even in those younger than 65, according to the 2001 report "Achieving & Maintaining Cognitive
Vitality With Aging," sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Aging & the International Longevity Center-USA, among
Likewise, the report says exercise can benefit an older person's brain by
improving blood supply to the brain & a high intake of antioxidants, such as vitamin C, E & beta-carotene, may help prevent progressive cognitive impairment.
Whatever method you choose to give your mind a workout, Butler says the earlier
you start, the better.
"We should be exercising our minds & our bodies," he says. "We'd all be
a lot healthier if we did."