We all know that exercise helps keep our hearts healthy, but what keeps our brains in top form?
Researchers are working overtime to answer this question, as the boomers grow older and a cure for Alzheimer’s disease remains elusive. The good news: Recent findings offer hope.
“Cognitive aging is the biggest health crisis in our country,” said Denise C. Park, co-director for the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas and a distinguished chair in behavioral and brain sciences there.
Park and her colleagues have researched cognitive function in older adults, publishing findings earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science on which activities yielded the biggest boost on memory tests (more on those later). Other recent research has suggested the benefits of learning a second language, even in adulthood.
The Cost of Dementia
This research comes as the monetary cost of dementia in the U.S. tops $157 billion annually, according to estimates by the Rand Corp. — and that number could more than double by 2040 if the current trend continues. (While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in this country, there are other causes as well.) Dementia can exact a crippling financial toll on its sufferers—and the emotional devastation that dementia can wreak on families defies calculation.
Scientists used to think that people’s cognitive function peaked in young adulthood and then began an inexorable and irreversible slide. Today, we know that “our brains are still amenable to change in older age,” said Dr. Dena Dubal, assistant professor in the department of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco and a specialist in aging and neurodegenerative disease.
Since there are no effective treatments and no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the best we can hope for now is to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia — the stage when the disease impairs daily functioning — for as long as possible through healthy habits such as brain stimulation, diet and exercise, said Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and co-author of the book, The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program.
Stimulating, Not Frustrating
Park’s recent research focused on brain stimulation through a variety of real-life activities. Researchers separated healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 90 into six groups over the course of the 14-week study. One group studied camera skills and learned how to use professional photography software; another learned quilting; a third studied both digital photography and quilting.
The remaining groups either engaged in structured social activities; worked on activity packets that included documentaries, informative magazines, word games and classical music CDs; or did nothing formally organized, but reported weekly activities to researchers. Participants met at a space off campus, where there were instructors always on hand to help those studying quilting and photography.
All the participants were given a battery of memory tests at the beginning of the study, then again toward the end. Those in all three of the quilting and photography groups registered significantly bigger gains than the other groups. “Based on our findings, I would suggest that people do activities that are mentally challenging, but not so much that it becomes aversive,” Park said.
Researchers called this type of activity “productive engagement.” It refers to tasks that involve active learning and sustained memory activation. The real-life takeaway: It’s best to find a hobby or job that challenges you, but not so much that you’re frustrated and want to give up, Park said.
In contrast to the photography and quilting groups, the group that received activity packets used “receptive engagement.” These activities, including magazines and crossword puzzles, relied on passive observation, the activation of existing knowledge, and familiar activities. Participants in this group also improved on the tests, Park said, but not nearly as much as those studying quilting and/or photography.
Brain Benefits from a Second Language
Separate research has focused on the benefits of bilingualism. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently found that being bilingual had a positive effect on later-life cognition, as measured by a variety of memory and other tests. Bilingualism was defined as the ability to communicate in a second language, and it was assessed through a questionnaire, not a proficiency test. In other words, participants didn’t have to have nativelike fluency in the other language to be considered bilingual.
Notably, this positive effect was even seen in participants who learned their second language as adults. Researchers also controlled for intelligence, to try to isolate whether it was the second language that helped, or whether people who mastered a second language were smarter to begin with. In a significant contribution to the literature, they found some evidence that the former was true.
Outside of academia, brain fitness has become a big business: the brain training and cognitive assessment market reached an estimated $1.3 billion in 2013, up from an estimated $210 million in 2005, according to SharpBrains, a San Francisco-based independent market research firm. While some brain-training programs focus on children and adults with attention deficit disorders, many target older customers, pitching brain workouts on computers as a way to help ward off dementia.
A Healthy Dose of Skepticism
Some experts argue that it’s unclear whether an improvement in such artificial exercises translates into improvements in everyday life — remembering names and faces, for example, or where you put your reading glasses.
“Who cares if you can get better on a computer task?” said David Z. Hambrick, professor in the department of psychology at Michigan State University, who has studied the efficacy of cognitive training. “At this point, all we can be certain of on these brain-training tasks is that they make you better at the task itself.”
Alvaro Fernandez, CEO and co-founder of SharpBrains, said in an email message that the brain-training tests most likely to transfer improvements to the real-world are those that induce “neuroplasticity” in certain regions — that is, the training task changes the brain regions involved in the real-life activity. That said, it isn’t always obvious to the layperson which activities will have this desired effect.
Hambrick argues that some cognitive training exercises can actually be detrimental for older test-takers.
For one, there’s an opportunity cost. The time you spend drilling on the computer is time that you could be spending on something else that you’d prefer. Then there’s the monetary cost: While these programs aren’t necessarily pricey (some offer monthly subscriptions of around $13), that’s still money that could be spent elsewhere.
A Source of Frustration
Most important, Hambrick says computer brain training can be a source of frustration for older adults. Those who fail to improve at the task at hand can get discouraged, and the very real fear of developing dementia can grow, he said.
Researchers say that bigger breakthroughs in forestalling dementia might be on the horizon. For example, Dubal and colleagues are investigating the potential of a gene called Klotho, which all humans carry to greater and lesser degrees, to act as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. But for now, as the scientists do their work, we need to focus on the factors under our control.
So what’s a body to do to keep the brain healthy?
While the scientific community has more to learn, for now it’d be hard to go wrong finding a progressively challenging hobby that you enjoy, and that won’t break the bank. Park and her research team decided to focus on quilting and photography, but other activities they considered studying were learning a second language, learning a musical instrument, dancing and bridge.
Physical exercise is also essential. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise improves memory and brain function, in party by increasing blood flow to the brain.
Also, remember to shake things up every once in a while: Vary your workout, learn something new, visit new places. Said Small, “The brain loves novelty.”
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