Keeping Your Brain Sharp As a Tack
How much good do mental exercises really do?
Feeling like the old steel trap has gotten rusty, or your synapses aren’t firing rapidly on all cylinders anymore?
There isn’t an app for that. As it turns out, the best way to reboot your brain is to lace up your boots. Hiking boots, that is.
Experts in the field of aging and neuroscience are now debunking the conventional wisdom that playing video brain games, even the more challenging ones, is the optimum way for seniors to stay sharp-witted.
“In general, smartphone and computer apps providing ‘brain training’ are most likely to improve people’s ability to do the tasks in the program. However, it is not clear that they significantly improve brain functioning in real life tasks and settings,” says Stephen Bartels, MD, Herman O. West professor of geriatrics and director of the Dartmouth Centers for Health and Aging. “In contrast, we know that there are a number of evidence-based measures that significantly contribute to reducing the risk of cognitive problems in later life.”
They include the tried-and-true tricks of sticking to a physical exercise routine, reaching and maintaining an optimal weight, stopping smoking and effectively treating depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and other health problems.
“We know, for example, that regular aerobic and weight resistance exercise can literally result in growing new brain cell connections by increasing the level of a naturally occurring brain cell growth factor,” Bartels says. “In brief, if you have a choice between sitting in a chair every day while using a brain training computer game while sipping a glass of red wine, which is also supposed to be helpful, versus going for a daily brisk walk, go for the walk.”
The lucrative brain games industry saw worldwide sales of software and hardware climb to $1.3 billion in 2013 and analysts figure that number will rise to $6 billion by 2020, according to the neuro-wellness research firm Sharp Brains.
That’s because the companies, which create online brain exercises with a wide range of games catering to seniors with all different levels of interest and intellectual ability, vow their products work wonders.
Some even go so far as to claim they can prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which the national Alzheimer’s Association says now afflicts more than 5 million Americans and is projected to reach 13.5 million people by 2050 as the population ages.
But all of those claims for a cognitive cure are as bogus as the so-called science they are based on, say top neuroscientists.
Roberto Cabeza, MD, the core faculty member at the Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences, is one of 70 top neuroscientists who were signatories to a letter published in an October 2014 issue of the highly respected and peer-reviewed weekly journal “Science.”
In their findings, they concurred with Bartels’ opinion that living a healthy lifestyle is the key. Seniors are indeed better off going for that hike than sitting down to play a video brain game.
“Cognitive improvements from exercise appear to be modest, but are still greater than any of the small, fleeting gains yet observed in studies of gaming,” says Cabeza, who adds there is no harm in playing those games just for fun.
In fact, current research suggests that some video games developed simply for enjoyment might be more effective than those designed specifically to maintain mental acuity.
Brain games certainly won’t hurt anything, except perhaps your pocketbook as monthly online subscriptions can cost as much as $15 per month.
It’s evident that some of the best games aren’t virtual. Even better, they don’t come with a hefty price tag.
“I don’t recommend, as a general course, for seniors to go on the computer and play those video brain games,” says Keene Senior Center Director Pegg Monahan. “Our brain games here are things like bridge, cribbage and pinochle, and from time to time we add canasta or Scrabble, the games that are not electronic. Bridge is particularly challenging and mentally stimulating, and a lot of people play that game for the specific reason of keeping themselves mentally sharp.”
One can’t argue with the results.
“Those are all of the brain games that we encourage because they truly work and are very effective. Some of our brightest and most articulate 80 and 90 year olds are in those programs,” Monahan says. “We have 90 year olds playing bridge. As a brain game, it’s really great.”
Surprisingly, one of the best, and completely free, ways to stay mentally nimble is to simply burst into song.
“We have found that singing is very stimulating for the brain, and that is hugely effective. I had no idea about this until I went to a lecture about brain stimulation. The lecturer talked about singing loudly, and putting it right out there. It brings oxygen into the lungs and into the brain. We tried it here and found that it is extremely beneficial,” she says.
Moreover, the convivial aspect of playing cards, cribbage, word games and singing has better benefits for seniors than communing with their computers and smartphones.
“The social activity is the most important component for seniors staying sharp, along with diet and exercise,” Monahan says. “I would discourage people from playing games on a phone or a computer because it is so isolating. Isolation is not good for anyone, particularly seniors. Isolation gets people depressed, and then there are all kinds of health issues that result and contribute to decline. Doing those isolated activities can be OK for a short-term fun thing, but not as a regular thing.”
The experts recommend that seniors hoping to stay mentally keen learn something completely new, enjoy the challenge and stay excited about it.
Monahan’s advice? “Get up, get yourself out there, go do something social and have fun!”