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  • Writer's pictureSecond Opinion Magazine

The Buff Brain

Two days a week you run, you lift weights, and find your “Om” in a weekly yoga class, but when was the last time you exercised your biggest muscle? When was the last time you challenged your brain to a workout? Just like exercising your body, your mind need equal attention to stay sharp and focused.

Neurologist and author of The Better Brain, David Perlmutter says, by age 40, about two-thirds of people experience some mental decline. Our brains begin slowing down with mild memory problems or fuzzy recollections, and can dramatically increase as we age if we don’t work out the gray matter. By 65, one out of every 100 people have some level of dementia, like confusion, forgetfulness that can be mild to severe, and a have a difficult time living on their own. By age 75, that number increases to one out of every 10 people, and according to the National Institute on Aging, by 85 almost all of us have Alzheimer’s.

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.

There is a bright side. A growing number of research says that brain workouts can 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.”

A 2004 study in the journal Natural showed that adults who learned to juggle increased the size of the part of the brain that was used to process complex visual motion.

Another study showed that cab drivers in London had a more developed section of the brain that was important for spatial memory. More interesting was that the longer they had been a cab driver, the bigger this part of the brain was. 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.

Mental gymnastics Keep your brain on its toes by regularly exercising the part of your brain you don’t use all the time. “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.”

Here are a few ideas:

*To keep reasoning skills honed, solve riddles, sudoku, or logic puzzles; join book clubs and discuss different works of literature; discuss world issues with friends. Rhetoric is a great logic exercise.

*For verbal skills, do word games like crossword puzzles, word jumbles, or play Scrabble; really challenge yourself and learn a new language.

*To increase memory, revert to your childhood and actually play the game Memory. Card games are also great for memory stimulation.

*For visual and auditory processing, buy a book with pictorial mind benders, play an instrument, or you could listen to books on tape.

*To maintain coordination and dexterity, you could learn to knit, try racket ball, or use the mouse or a pen with the opposite hand for a bit each day.

Play smart That’s right. Science is telling you to play video games. If it’s in your budget, go and get Brain Age by Nintendo, Brain Fitness by Posit Science, or MindFit by Cognifit. These games all challenge the mental makeup by improving memory, auditory and visual processing, reaction time, and hand-eye coordination. These games target all ages, even younger people who may have noticed the occasional “senior moment.”

According to Natural Solutions magazine, 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. The same article goes on to say that Easter Seals is also using the Brain Fitness program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries.

But are they effective? The evidence is early but exciting. Research found that three months of playing MindFit 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? Let’s face it, if we don’t eat right, our bodies can’t respond, and proper nutrition is essential to getting our minds defogged. Eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, as well as foods high in omega-3 fatty acids help improve mind health. Also important is keeping an active social life. “People who maintain and expand their social relationships appear to do better mentally than those who are more socially isolated,” Edgerly says. Finally, get physically fit. When you exercise, your body increases the blood flow and oxygen levels in the brain. In fact, Alzheimer’s is strongly linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. By eating right and getting enough exercise you can help keep your brain in tip top shape.

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