You run marathons, regularly lift weights, and are the Pilates queen. But when’s the last time you worked out your brain? That gray matter needs exertion, too. More than that, it needs variety. Just as you exercise your entire body and all its muscle groups, likewise, you should exercise your entire brain to stay sharp (goodness knows it could use the help). In fact, by age 40, about two-thirds of people experience some mental decline, says neurologist David Perlmutter, author of The Better Brain Book. The slowdown typically begins with mild memory problems or fuzzy thinking and can accelerate dramatically as the decades pass. By age 65, one out of every 100 people will have symptoms of dementia, such as confusion, severe forgetfulness, and difficulty managing on their own. By age 75, that number increases to one out of 10. And when we reach age 85, nearly half of us will have Alzheimer’s, according to the National Institute on Aging.
This mental decline occurs for the same reason the rest of the body ages: The cells lose their ability to recover from damage, particularly from compounds called free radicals. The process is accelerated by lack of physical exercise, stress, insufficient sleep, toxins in our environment, tobacco, trans fats in our diets, trauma to the head, and other harmful agents, according to Perlmutter.
Stop the brain drain
Fortunately, a growing body of research suggests that “brain workouts” can dramatically slow the decline. “We know there’s a relationship between how much people challenge themselves mentally and the likelihood of them developing a disease like Alzheimer’s later on,” says psychologist Elizabeth Edgerly, spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Maintain Your Brain program. “People who do things like study another language, learn a musical instrument, or play games like chess or bridge appear to do better than people who don’t.”
In the last few years, scientists have begun to understand why that might be so. Until recently, scientists were convinced that once we leave childhood, our brain structure is fixed, no longer capable of growing new brain cells. That notion was overthrown by researchers at San Diego’s Salk Institute, whose landmark research, published in the journal Annals of Neurology in 2002, showed that adult mice placed in mentally stimulating environments grew new brain cells.
The same appears to hold true for humans. In a 2004 study published in the journal Nature, scientists using magnetic brain scans demonstrated that when people learned to juggle, the parts of the brain that process complex visual motion increased in size. Another study revealed that a brain section important for spatial memory was larger in London taxi drivers than in other people. What’s more, the longer they had been driving a cab, the bigger that part of the brain. Although scientists don’t yet know whether these changes resulted from the growth of new brain cells, or simply from new connections being formed, they provide vivid proof that even as adults, we can change our brains.
More importantly, practicing different cognitive skills can directly affect your everyday functioning. A major study funded by the National Institutes of Health, and published in 2006 in JAMA, provided older adults with 10 cognitive training sessions (each about an hour long) for either memory, reasoning, or speed of processing, over a six-week period. Participants then had four booster sessions one year after the study and three years after it. Compared to a control group, the participants all improved in the area where they received training, and they maintained the improvements when tested five years later. Additionally, the people who had been given speed of processing training did better on everyday tasks such as making change, reading medicinal instructions, and reacting to traffic signs.
To keep your mind fit, however, you need to keep it on its toes— regularly exposing it to new challenges that exercise different parts of the brain. “The things that are good for your brain involve new learning,” says Robbi Peele of Posit Science, which developed the cognitive-health program called Brain Fitness. “Doing a crossword puzzle is good for your brain, but if you’ve been doing crossword puzzles for years, it’s not going to keep it in the learning mode and prevent cognitive decline as effectively.” Instead, for full-brain fitness, you need to work different cognitive areas. Here are a few ideas:
- To keep reasoning skills honed, solve riddles, sudoku, or logic puzzles; join book clubs to analyze texts; and debate issues with friends (rhetoric requires logic after all).
- For verbal skills, do word games like crossword puzzles, word jumbles, Scrabble, etc.; learn a new language; buy “Word a Day” calendars; and read various styles of writing, from classics to cartoons.
- To increase memory, play—you guessed it—Memory, the card game (also called Concentration); commit to heart some phone numbers; and purposefully create mental photographs of various locations (such as your drive to work) and then test yourself.
- For visual and auditory processing, buy a book with pictorial mind benders, play an instrument, and listen to books on tape.
- To maintain coordination and dexterity, learn new skills like knitting; pick up a sport that requires hand-eye coordination such as ping-pong; and, once in a while, write with your opposite hand.
These are just a few examples, and a whole host of books, CDs, and computer programs now exist to hone your mental edge. The latter have only recently arrived on the scene. Programs range from Nintendo’s best-selling Brain Age, to more advanced programs such as Brain Fitness (by Posit Science) and MindFit (by Cognifit). Both were developed by leading neuroscience researchers.
The programs—which offer myriad mental challenges, such as ones to improve memory, auditory and visual processing, reaction time, and hand-eye coordination—target all ages, even younger people who may have noticed the occasional “senior moment.” Additionally, scientists are testing MindFit to see if it helps people with multiple sclerosis, and there’s a new version of MindFit designed for cancer patients whose chemotherapy drugs have left them with “chemo-fog”—a pattern of memory loss, fatigue, and cognitive dullness that can last for years after treatment. Easter Seals is also using the Brain Fitness program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Do these programs work? The evidence, while preliminary, is exciting. In one carefully controlled study with 121 participants, researchers at Tel-Aviv University compared MindFit’s program to a battery of a dozen educational video games and found that three months of MindFit training significantly improved cognitive abilities in elderly people. “It’s very exciting for people to see that it’s possible to change,” Edgerly says, “that you can work at it and potentially regenerate the brain.”
Healthy body, healthy mind
But all the brain teasers in the world won’t help if you don’t feed your brain right. Eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, as well as foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like cold-water fish, flax, and hemp, all promote mental health. Also important is keeping an active social life. “People who maintain and expand their social relationships appear to do better mentally and have better memory than those who are more socially isolated,” Edgerly says.
Finally, mental fitness requires physical fitness. Getting your body moving increases the flow of blood and oxygen to brain cells. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease is strongly linked to obesity, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes, leading many to consider Alzheimer’s the “type-3 diabetes.” By eating right and exercising both body and mind, you can keep your brain a lean, mean, thinking machine for the long haul.
Get your brain jumping with these memory exercises from The Better Brain Book, by neurologist David Perlmutter.
To improve your ability to recall numbers, take a deck of cards and remove all aces and picture cards. Each morning, randomly remove one card from the deck and look at the number on it. Pay no attention to the suit. Say the number out loud and create a mental image of a file folder in which you store the number. It is helpful to actually visualize a file folder, and then picture the number being placed in the file.
After lunch, recall the number. Rather than trying to remember the number directly, picture the file where it’s stored. Recall the number again in the evening after dinner, thinking first of the image of the file, and then mentally retrieving the number.
When you can remember the number for six out of seven days, increase the workout by drawing two cards from the deck each morning, and then three cards.
To speed up mental reaction time, start with a shuffled deck of cards and a stopwatch. Sort the cards into four separate piles, one for each suit (diamonds, spaces, clubs, and hearts). Do this three times daily. A typical young adult can complete this exercise in 35 seconds, although older adults may find that it takes them a minute or more at first. Track your progress: The more you do it, the faster you’ll get.
By Dan Orzech