Your Brain, On Puzzles

The Aging Brain: Do Mental Gymnastics Really Work?

Your Brain, On Puzzles

Once thought to languish in irreversible decline post adolescence, science
is now learning that the brain acts more like a regenerative muscle.


ay Langan, of Greenwich, Connecticut, has always led a life of the mind. She’s been a writer her whole life, mostly of business books and textbooks. At 64, she started a master’s degree program at NYU. Now, at 81, she’s pursuing graduate work in fiction at Manhattanville College. “After a lifetime of writing, I finally can write what I want to write,” Langan says.

The octogenarian, who has completed and is shopping around a children’s chapter book, credits her long-term mental acuity with constantly engaging her mind. In fact, it never occurred to her to stop learning new things as she got older. “Absolutely!” is her response when asked if this is the secret to staying sharp into her eighties.

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Langan should serve as a role model for the next generation of elderly. As Baby Boomers age and medical science provides longer and longer life for our bodies, many are seeking ways to keep their minds healthy as well. In the Westchester County area, senior centers offer everything from bridge to fitness classes designed to keep seniors active, healthy, and engaged in the world around them, and many local universities offer study opportunities for older adults.

 The general belief, as far as the brain goes, is “use it or lose it.” We’ve all heard the stories. In the 1790s, Benjamin Franklin continued tinkering, chasing women, and politicking into his eighties. Hudson Valley resident Pete Seeger, in his late eighties, still performs his famous folk songs. And among the non-famous, who hasn’t heard of the 98-year-old who still goes to work every day or the 101-year-old woman who completes the New York Times crossword puzzle every Sunday?

But what exactly is at work here? Many physicians and social workers have recommended a spectrum of things to slow brain aging, including a healthy diet and regular physical and mental exercise. All of those things, they say, contribute to a healthier and richer life, but the hows and whys are just now being understood by science. It is only in the last 20 years that scientists have begun to appreciate the complex physiology that causes people to lose cognition as they age and what factors, if any, may help stave off symptoms. The key words being “stave off” rather than prevent entirely. Nothing seems to entirely prevent or cure dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.

There is no denying that mental exercise—learning how to play the piano or bridge, for instance—nourishes the mind. But does it actually improve memory? Research finds that while mental workouts may make us feel good, they do not necessarily decelerate the rate of normal memory loss. You can do Sudoku puzzles all day long and even become a champion player, but it’s not going to help you remember where you left the remote control.

What is? Some research suggets that a healthy, nutrient-rich diet may contribute to a healthier mind as the body ages. Ingredients like omega-3 fatty acids and Docosahexaenoic acid (a.k.a. DHA, an essential fatty acid), which can be found in such foods as flaxseeds and salmon, do seem to contribute to mental acuity and reduced levels of DHA associated with Alzheimer’s. Also, antioxidants found in richly colored fruits and vegetables (like blueberries and papaya) may help keep the mind sharp because, experts say, they help mitigate damage to brain cells from free radicals that build up in neurons over time. Harvard University’s landmark and ongoing nurses’ study, which has monitored the health of more than 13,000 nurses over many decades, is among the studies that has supported this theory.

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But it is physical exercise, some research suggests, that may be the best antitode to memory loss as we age. Studies show that regular 30-minute aerobic exercise sessions contribute to keeping your mind sharp. One such study, done over two years by clinical psychologists at the University of Toronto and the University of California, Irvine, and released in 2005, looked at the relationship between exercise and mental acuity in aging beagles and found that beagles that were exercised regularly and given stimulating toys to play with stayed mentally sharp longer.

One reason exercise may keep the brain stay young is that it sends more oxygen to the brain. But that’s just part of the story. Researchers suspect that aerobic exercise—unlike stretching and toning exercises—actually produces brain chemicals that make the neurons in our brains work well. The better the neurons work, the more vigorous our brains. The chemicals that aerobic exercise produces also help keep the cells in the portion of the brain responsible for memory alive longer. (We lose brain cells and make new ones throughout our lives, but the production process slows down as we grow older—and in some parts of the brain, it seems to simply stop altogether.) And—good news—we don’t need to wear ourselves out working out; just enough exercise to raise the heart rate will do.

However, exercise, alas, is not a fool-proof elixir. The National Institute of Aging notes that no one really knows for sure whether physical activity actually can prevent cognitive decline or postpone the development of Alzheimer’s, especially in people with a high genetic risk. In other words, nothing is known for certain—yet.

Since the 1980s, more and more research has been done in the relatively new field of brain plasticity. “Basically, brain plasticity is the power or capacity of the brain to reorganize itself to process information more efficiently,” says Joe Hardy, a clinical psychologist who specializes in brain plasticity and works for “The Brain Fitness Program” manufacturer Posit Science. “These are real physical changes that are occurring in the brain.” This has opened up an entirely new field of research for neuroscientists. Among other revelations, researchers discovered that complex tasks can help a brain heal from injury.

Up until the 1980s, most scientists and doctors believed that after a youthful learning period, the brain slowed down  and, if anything, deteriorated. However, studies began to reveal that  adult animals’ brains adapt to new stimuli—or injury. This led to the concept of brain plasticity, and the notion that brains can move and change and be manipulated throughout life. Essentially, this means that your brain moves and changes somewhat like your muscles do. This research proved invaluable not only to understanding how better to prevent the brain from aging but also how to recover from stroke and other brain injuries. This represents significant hope for not only the injured or aging, but people with strokes and learning disorders as well.

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In 2002, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study by scientists at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago that indicated the “use-it-or-lose-it” theory espoused by active retirees and many doctors has basis in medical fact. The broad study looked at dementia-free patients older than 65 over a four-and-a-half year period and showed that the more active the brain, the less the loss of acuity over time. White Plains neurologist Dr. Barry Jordan says, “There have been other epidemiological studies that show that getting a higher education, and continuing to educate yourself throughout your lifetime can be protective against Alzheimer’s. Even though there is a genetic component, that does not make up the whole picture.”

Since 2002, studies have tried to figure out what kinds of activities—in addition to aerobic exercise—work best for preserving cognitive health. Just staying active is not enough, and even activities (like our favorite crossword puzzles) may not help improve memory, just vocabulary. According to newer cognitive research by Dr. Timothy Salthouse of the University of Virginia, one must continue to learn complex, new tasks in order to keep the brain fit and active. It is not enough simply to stay with tasks that you have learned and mastered over your whole life. Hardy likes to cite the example found in studies of London cab drivers, who must acquire and be tested on their mastery of the mind-bogglingly complex London streets. This grueling test, called “the Knowledge,” requires an intense amount of study by the cabbies, and, he says, has produced dramatic results. Cabbies taking these exams are said to be “on the Knowledge.”

“It’s been shown using functional magnetic imaging—FMI—that a part of the brain that’s involved with forming memories and special navigation, the hippocampus, expands. And the size is proportional to how long the cabbies have been on the Knowledge,” says Hardy. In other words, the harder the cabbies’ brains work, the larger the hippocampus becomes—similar (if not identical) to a muscle that grows after continually being exercised. This supports the notion of a causal relationship between mental stimulation and subsequent physiological changes to the brain.

Brain imaging also has given insight to how the brain responds to damage. Brent Masel, MD, a neurologist and president and medical director of a pioneering brain rehab center in Galveston, Texas, called the Transitional Learning Center (TLC), says he has long known that the brain has an amazing capacity for healing, whether the deterioration is due to aging, traumatic brain injury, or stroke. Now, with the advent of new imaging technology, he says what he and other physicians observed can be concretely demonstrated. 

As with many new fields of science, a cottage industry has formed around the concept of brain plasticity, often referred to as “brain fitness.” This industry has produced books, a 2007 PBS special, and video games and other computer programs claiming to keep the brain active and fit and help prevent the memory loss associated with aging. Some of the programs lean toward the New Age—promising to “detoxify” the brain, while others, such as Posit Science’s “The Brain Fitness Program,” claim to have a heavy basis in science.

But in the end, it’s the Ben Franklins and the Kay Langans of the world—those who keep their minds and bodies healthy and active as they age—who serve as the best role models. Eighty-one-year-old Langan never has needed a computer program or self-help book to keep her brain fit. She simply lives her life as she wishes and keeps challenging herself. To explain her inspiration, Langan paraphrases her favorite Bible quote—one about how God expects you to use the talents you’ve been given. “When you come before the Lord, you must account for your talents,” she says.

Melissa Marshall writes for national and local magazines, lives in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches professional writing at Kutztown University.

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