Brain Fitness

One of the hottest topics in the field of healthy aging is “brain fitness.” Even a cursory internet search using those keywords yields tens of thousands of results. The challenge, of course, is how to sift through the myriad claims – often contradictory – about how to keep our brains healthy as we age. Is it as simple as doing crossword puzzles?

It seems that achieving “brain fitness” – or even understanding fully what that means – is far more complex than simply engaging in word or numeric exercises.

How do you measure brain fitness? Is there crossover benefit from a memory game to being able to remember the name of someone you just met?

Definitive answers to these questions are still being sought. The relatively recent upsurge of interest in this topic seems to have been prompted by a number of factors. All of these considerations, supplemented by the increasing scope and number of related research studies, help us understand that the phrase, “Use it or lose it” can apply to a range of human capacities, including our cognitive abilities.

What may be surprising is that increasing evidence suggests that not only brain “exercises,” but a balanced combination of physical, nutritional, emotional, social, spiritual and mental activities are needed to keep our brains healthy and responsive as we age. This same combination of stimulating activities might even reduce our vulnerability to dementia and other brain deficiencies.

For many decades, the “What you get, is what you get,” theory of brain development predominated. The assumption was that we are born with all of the brain cells that we will ever have; that they can be enriched only into early childhood; and that no new neurons can form into adulthood and certainly not into older age.

More recent research seems to contradict that theory. The most conclusive evidence relates to individuals who have sustained traumatic brain injury, such from an accident or stroke. With a range of therapies, many people are able to regain or renew capacities that had apparently been lost as a result of their trauma. This is certainly wonderful news for those touched by such a devastating incident. But what approaches address more common and subtle forms of brain dysfunction? In other words, what can we do to keep our brain healthy?

Marilyn S. Albert, PhD, from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions has stated, “All the things that we know are bad for your heart turn out to be bad for your brain.” Here’s what we know about maintaining cardiovascular health that can relate to brain health:

• Keep physically active:

• Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control.

• Maintain long-term relationships – and establish new ones:

• Seek out new learning and experiences

  • Learn a new (or revitalize an abandoned) card or board game
  • Take a painting or drawing class
  • Read something in an unfamiliar topic
  • Interrupt old habits (for example, open doors or use your door key with your opposite hand)
  • Wear your watch on your opposite wrist as a reminder

If you aren’t sure where to begin, take a look at our calendar this month and find the programs with the icon for brain fitness. Then…get started!