Tuesday, January 23, 2007

8 ways to exercise your brain

January 22, 2007

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There are some aspects of aging, such as gray hair, that Laura Bestler-Wilcox can accept.

Mental decline is not one of them.

"I'm only 38, but I have no intention of growing old - mentally, at least," said Bestler-Wilcox, from Ames.

She started playing Nintendo's Brain Age game last month, and says it helps keep her brain active. The goal is to score the ideal "brain age" of 20, which you achieve by doing a range of exercises - from math problems and counting the number of syllables in words, to reading aloud and Sudoku.

"I do math better," said Bestler-Wilcox, who plays the game every other day for about 20 minutes. "It's like doing exercises for different parts of your body. This is exercising your brain."

Staying mentally fit is a hot topic - from new research touting the benefits of mental exercises, to seminars on maintaining your brain health done by AARP and the Alzheimer's Association.

Two new studies, one done in Des Moines, show that brain workouts are beneficial for mental health, and can help improve brain function.

Brain health is an important issue among America's approximately 78 million baby boomers. The AARP Web site includes tips for a healthy brain, as well as brain puzzles. The organization conducted about 30 presentations nationwide on brain health last year, said Michael Patterson, manager of AARP's "Staying Sharp" program.

"People seem to be more willing to put up with physical decline, more than mental decline," Patterson said.

Here are eight ways people of all ages can keep mentally sharp.


Brain games may help improve mental function, and could possibly help prevent dementia.

That's according to a six-month pilot study in Des Moines that included Alzheimer's patients.

Participants used the "Happy Neuron" software (www.happyneuron.com), said geriatrician Dr. Robert Bender, who led the research team. The activities targeted language, visual-spatial and memorization skills.

The findings were released earlier this month.

The games seem to help overall brain health, said Bender, medical director of the Orr Center for Memory and Healthy Aging in West Des Moines. Researchers don't know yet whether doing the exercises can definitely prevent diseases like Alzheimer's.

"The challenge is to stretch yourself, at the same time without making it frustrating," Bender said. "At all ages, we need to challenge our brain to learn new things, and that's the main thing."

The study's "brain wellness program" also included: consistent social interaction, physical exercise, a low-fat diet, stress management and meditation.

Caregivers also participated in the study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Brain training can help ease daily tasks. Seniors who did certain mental exercises improved their thinking skills, according to a recent study.

They also had an easier time performing everyday tasks, even five years after receiving training, compared to untrained people.

The difference was significant for people who had reasoning training, said Michael Marsiske, one of the principal investigators of the study.

The study included 2,802 adults age 65 and older who were living independently and had normal brain function.

The training exercises included:

- Memory: To help people memorize word lists, one method was to organize a grocery list by the sections of the store, said Marsiske, an associate professor in the department of clinical health and psychology at the University of Florida.

- Visualization: Use all your senses to remember things. For example, if you need to remember a dog's name, visualize what the dog's fur feels like, recall the sound of its bark, and, yes, try to re-create its smell.

- Reasoning: Participants learned to use highlighters to identify key points in complicated information. That included underlining important information like dosage and frequency on a medication.


Don Eller of Urbandale says he stays sharp by volunteering to do people's taxes as part of a program run by AARP.

"In preparation to do that, there are tax classes you attend," said Eller, 76. "So you are continuing working with numbers and math concepts."

During the off-season, he likes to play Sudoku online. He also tries to take daily walks, and on most days walks about three miles.

Marsiske recommends taxpayers take a crack at those pesky forms and complicated columns of numbers before handing them off to professionals. It's just one way to flex your mental brawn.

"That's where you're engaging your mental activity," Marsiske said.

Another simple numbers tip: Figure out the calculations yourself, first, before breaking out the calculator.


There's a whole new body of research showing that individuals with a lot of education, highly challenging jobs, and who are very socially engaged have the highest levels of mental function and the lowest levels of decline later in life, Marsiske said.

"If we do things to produce healthy brains early in life, then we will benefit from that later in life," he said.


Keep track of your passwords - without the help of your computer. This is Marsiske's trick: "I never let my computer remember any passwords," he said. He writes them down in a hidden spot, in a hidden code. "What I want to do is engage in that act of having to remember."


Remember that you want to find activities that test your mental mettle. One danger with crossword puzzles, Bender said, is that people who regularly do them may already be familiar with the vocabulary. Avoid slipping into the familiar, and try something new.


Translation: Learn Spanish, or another new language or mechanical skill. "It's important to find things that we enjoy because that lowers stress and that helps the brain work better," Bender said.


What's good for the body is good for the brain. More research is confirming that exercise, diet, a healthy lifestyle and getting an adequate amount of sleep not only keep you physically healthy, but also mentally, Marsiske said.

Reporter Dawn Sagario can be reached at (515) 284-8351 or dsagario@dmreg.com

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