Mind-Body-Mood Advisor: A Healthy Brain Needs Work and Play

Pursue lifelong learning to keep your brain fit as you age, but give it some playtime too.

November 16, 2009

People who embrace lifelong learning tend to be protected from dementia.

RODALE NEWS, LENOX, MA—It's fairly easy to tell how fit your body is, but do you ever wonder if you have strong, healthy brain? We all worry about our memory occasionally—unexpectedly blanking on a name or a word we know perfectly well is a near-universal experience. But for people who are getting up in years, anxiety about remembering can become a source of tremendous concern. Most of the people who come to see me for memory evaluations are anxious about whether the memory slips they experience are normal for their age. They worry that forgetting directions to a familiar place, or details of a recent conversation, may be a sign of impending dementia. If one or both of their parents have suffered from dementia, their anxiety level may be especially high.

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THE DETAILS: Often a patient's memory test results turn out to be normal, but he or she has noticed a decline. So we explore what may be causing the momentary lapses. The good news is that not only is it normal for us to worry about our memory, but there are many things we can do to protect it, too. Some of the common factors that affect short-term memory function are sleep deprivation, medication side effects, excessive alcohol use, anxiety, depression, stress, and multitasking. For people concerned about cognitive decline, I make recommendations for preventive lifestyle changes and activities that have been shown to strengthen short-term recall, reasoning, and speed of processing, the most important functions for continued independence.

There's a lot we don't know about dementia, defined as cognitive decline due to physical changes in the brain. But we do know that doing the things that support a healthy brain can have major payoffs, even for people with a strong family history of dementia. Some years ago I worked with one woman whose mother had died of Alzheimer’s disease, and who consequently had genetic testing to determine her own risk. When she was told that she had the worst possible genetic profile for the disease, she asked my medical colleagues and me to design a program that would improve her chances of staying healthy.

Since then, she has zealously followed an anti-inflammatory diet and supplementation—Alzheimer’s disease appears to be an inflammatory process—while exercising religiously, learning new physical and mental skills, and using Posit Science Brain Fitness software for specific cognitive training. She comes back every few years for testing, and she’s now in her 70s and doing exceptionally well. She’s a terrific example of how much power we have to modify the expression of our genes through our lifestyle choices.

WHAT IT MEANS: A decline in memory and mental functioning needn't be an automatic consequence of aging. And you can take action now to tilt the odds in your favor. One of the most powerful ways we can enhance and maintain healthy brain functioning is through education. In fact, more education seems to have a protective effect even for individuals who do have Alzheimer's disease, lowering the likelihood that the ailment's effects on the brain will lead to cognitive decline. In a study published this year in the Archives of Neurology by Catherine M. Bro, PhD, and colleagues at Washington University, the researchers studied nearly 200 seniors (mean age 67) over a five-year period. Thirty-seven of the seniors had a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, while 161 had no signs of dementia. Brain scans revealed that many of the subjects who showed no signs of dementia did have significant deposits of beta-amyloid, the toxic protein that builds up and forms plaques in the brains of those with Alzheimer's disease. Most of the normally functioning subjects who had nevertheless had beta-amyloid deposits in their brains also had high levels of formal education. The researchers hypothesize that these individuals' educational experiences enabled them to build up cognitive reserve, excess brainpower that allowed them to compensate for areas of the brain that have been damaged by the disease process.

Whatever your age, here are some steps you can take to protect your memory, and your brain, as you grow older.

• Keep learning! Your brain responds to new learning the way a muscle responds to exercise: It gets stronger. Learning new information is helpful, but learning new skills is even better. You could learn a new language, or brush up on one you already know. Cultivate a new artistic or craft skill, such as painting, pottery, sculpture, photography, knitting, or needlepoint. Learn how to play a new musical instrument, or learn to play new songs on an instrument you already play. Learn to use one of the many programs on your computer you haven’t yet tried. Take a course at a local high school, college, or adult-education center.

• Combine learning and travel. An educational vacation like those offered by Elderhostel (Exploritas.org) exposes your brain to new sights, sounds, and experiences as well as new information. The Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning (Osherfoundation.org) offers programs in many locations around the country.

• Maintain and improve your brain's processing speed, reaction time, and other capabilities with brain-training video-game-like software, such as the Brain Fitness Program from Posit Science.

• Keep playing games, especially in social settings. Social contact is also important for healthy aging, so don't do all of your brain boosting in front of a computer screen. And the more attention and faster the decision-making process required in the game, the better for it is your brain (and, let's face it, the more fun).

• Think on your feet. Exercise is important for your brain as well as your body. Ballroom dancing, tennis, and table tennis are activities that offer the most brain-bang for the buck, since they combine aerobic challenge, social interaction, mind-body coordination, and fast decision making.

Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor,” appears Mondays on Rodale.com.