Several companies offer software programs that increase “brain fitness” as a way for seniors to stay sharp and possibly derail, or at least delay, the risk of dementia. These programs are so mainstream that some insurance companies and AAA support cognitive training for older adults to promote safe driving.
Researchers are unclear whether these activities delay or prevent the possibility of dementia. But results from neuropsychological and neuroscientific research indeed show that brain functionality — especially memory, attention and information-processing skills — is immediately improved with vigorous, regular mental activity of many kinds.
Brain fitness — unplugged
Cognitive function refers to perception, memory, imagery creation, thinking and reasoning. The pop term brain fitness was coined because cognitive function can be maintained or improved by exercising the brain through formal and ongoing education, specially designed exercises and other active mental engagement.
Foods to improve brain function:
- nuts and seeds
- green tea
- brown rice
- green leafy veggies
- wild salmon and tuna
- olive oil
Cognitive training software is designed to provide targeted tools to enhance brain fitness. But must older Americans rely on such software to reap these benefits? A study published in April says: not necessarily.
Researchers at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge analyzed the brain function of 11,430 people in the U.K. The study compared three groups. Group one played games similar to popular cognitive training programs. Group two played games the researchers designed to focus on fluid intelligence and reasoning. Group three answered a series of general knowledge questions.
Results showed simply using the Internet or engaging in other mental stimulation was as effective as a brain trainer product.
Many researchers think the key is simply to remain mentally challenged and engaged all day, whether it comes from computer programs or equally engaging activities that involve social interaction, intellectual passion and socially meaningful outcomes.
Four lifestyle choices to sharpen the mental saw
Everyone can incorporate these essential brain builders into their everyday activities:
1. Get your game on with favorites such as Scrabble, Pictionary and chess; puzzles including Sudoku and crosswords; card games and more. Several studies link mentally stimulating leisure activities with slowed memory loss and reduced dementia risk in seniors.
2. Social interaction exercises the brain. After all, people are surprising and unpredictable! Religious and community functions, supportive relationships with friends and family, and volunteering all fit the bill. Off-line education and interaction with pets count asmind-healthy socializing.
3. Keep moving! Multiple studies at the University of California at San Francisco, Laval University in Sainte-Foy, Quebec, the University of Illinois and the Salk Institute have shown physical exercise protects the brain from decline and can even reverse cognitive decline.
Walking is especially effective. Seniors who regularly walk have significantly better memory skills, learning ability, concentration and abstract reasoning than their sedentary peers. Unlike jogging or running where blood flows to large leg muscles, walking increases blood flow, oxygenation and glucose — brain food — to the brain, while clearing out waste products on the return trip.
4. Nutrition is the fourth vital choice. Healthy brain food is a complex mix of carbohydrates, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, antioxidants, high-quality proteins and fats. These nutrients, along with necessary minerals, provide energy, building material and protection from free-radical damage.
High-glycemic index sugars are bad for the brain. Glucose, dextrose and sucrose are found in highly refined, highly processed foods like candy, packaged baked goods, table sugar and sugary drinks. Toxins in tobacco and alcohol are also detrimental to brain function.
Getting a daily mix of brain-challenging activities isn’t tough. It’s easy to blend physical exercise and social interaction through group activities like walking clubs, yoga or Tai Chi classes. Dancing is the trifecta: it combines social interaction and physical exercise with the cognitive challenge of learning new steps.
The bonus? Embracing these four lifestyle priorities also yields benefits for physical and emotional health.