Exercise Your Brain




Wooden chess set

Physical activity and a healthy lifestyle are vital to physical performance, maintaining a healthy body and preventing a host of chronic conditions. Now, the same can be said for the brain. New research shows that brain exercises and a brain-healthy diet can improve cognitive performance.

The study, published by the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, examined 115 people who lived in retirement communities. The subjects were randomly assigned to participate in a twice-weekly educational program that included memory training, physical activity, stress reduction, and diet instruction, or be placed on the waiting list for the program and serve as the controls. After six weeks, the participants in the educational program showed improved objective and subjective scores related to cognitive function.

The study participants were mostly White women, and the mean age was almost 81 years. All of the participants cited memory complaints, but none has been diagnosed with dementia. Before and after the six-week study period, several measures of cognitive performance were assessed: verbal memory, retention of verbal information, memory recognition, verbal fluency, frequency and severity of forgetting, use of mnemonics, and retrospective functioning. In true use-it-or-lose-it fashion, the participants who learned brain exercises, such as brain teasers and memory techniques, and completed them outside of class, showed improved memory and cognition in only six weeks.

Age-related declines in memory and cognitive function are common, as are age-related declines in physical health. The relationship between the latter and the former is becoming more and more apparent. Whether chronic physical conditions related to an unhealthy lifestyle affect cognition or physical health directly influences mental function is still unclear. While some studies point to a direct link between obesity and impaired cognition, others find no direct link between increased body mass index or physical exercise and mental performance.

Regardless, physical activity and healthy lifestyle choices encourage healthy, productive aging, of which cognition is a part. Anecdotally, the most healthy aging people are the ones who remain active — physically and mentally: the octogenarian who does the crossword puzzle every morning, the great-grandfather who reads mystery novels, or the retired couple who travels the globe and learns new languages. The more you use your brain, the better is becomes. Just as becoming a proverbial couch potato will lead to a decline in physical health, becoming a mental couch potato will lead to decline in cognitive health.

The current study underscored that memory and cognitive improvements can be made with simple interventions. A straight-forward, low-cost, short-term brain and physical fitness program may be a step in the right direction for people who want to age not just gracefully, but better. So, jog your memory, stretch your cerebral cortex — a better brain awaits.

References

Angevaren M, Aufdemkampe G, Verhaar HJ, Aleman A, & Vanhees L (2008). Physical activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (3) PMID: 18646126

Miller KJ, Siddarth P, Gaines JM, Parrish JM, Ercoli LM, Marx K, Ronch J, Pilgram B, Burke K, Barczak N, Babcock B, & Small GW (2011). The Memory Fitness Program: Cognitive Effects of a Healthy Aging Intervention. The American journal of geriatric psychiatry : official journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry PMID: 21765343

Small GW, Silverman DH, Siddarth P, Ercoli LM, Miller KJ, Lavretsky H, Wright BC, Bookheimer SY, Barrio JR, & Phelps ME (2006). Effects of a 14-day healthy longevity lifestyle program on cognition and brain function. The American journal of geriatric psychiatry : official journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, 14 (6), 538-45 PMID: 16731723

Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Telang F, Fowler JS, Goldstein RZ, Alia-Klein N, Logan J, Wong C, Thanos PK, Ma Y, & Pradhan K (2009). Inverse association between BMI and prefrontal metabolic activity in healthy adults. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 17 (1), 60-5 PMID: 18948965

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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