Mind games
Aging boomers embrace brain exercises to ward off dementia

Monday, October 29, 2007 3:39 AM
By Leslie Walker

While drawing Queen Elizabeth on the tiny screen of her video-game player, 82-year-old Glenys Dyer was suddenly instructed — by a cartoon figure — to draw a picture of herself, then read a passage from a novel aloud.

“Our children gave this game to us,” husband John Dyer, 83, said as he watched his wife perform Brain Age exercises on a Nintendo DS. “The concept is to help the brain with rapid calculation and rapid reading.”

The couple, residents of a retirement community in Alexandria, Va., represent a brain-health movement in such communities nationwide.
“No technology trend in fitness has gotten

more media attention than cognition training,” said Andrew Carle, a George Mason University professor who studies brain-training products. “What’s driving it is the jump we are seeing in Alzheimer’s, which is an age-related disease.”

A growing body of research suggests that mental activity in middle age and earlier can help later in life. As a result, Web sites such as Happy Neuron.com offer online games to people of all ages.

Just as physical-fitness buffs hit the gym daily, senior citizens are toning their minds. The theory — so far with little hard science behind it — is that mental stimulation slows memory loss and other cognitive decline.

Encouraged by research suggesting that the brain can sprout new cells and rewire existing ones late in life, senior-citizen communities are supplementing the usual lineup of bingo and art classes with video games, Sudoku and computer activities.

“My view is if it doesn’t do any harm, we’ve got to try it,” said Mr. Dyer, a retired nuclear engineer. “My grandmother and mother both had dementia.”

In addition to the Brain Age game, the Dyers stretch their minds with several computer programs, including Brain Fitness.

The software is used by about 100 centers nationwide, including Dublin Retirement Village at 6470 Post Rd. The program is designed to improve memory by teaching the brain to interpret sounds quickly and accurately.

“We encourage residents to do it about an hour a day, every day,” said Kathy Moser, community-relations consultant with the retirement community. “It has been well-received and successful.”

Scientists seem to agree that at least four activities can defend against age and disease: eating fresh fruits and vegetables, doing regular aerobic exercise, performing challenging mental tasks and engaging in social pursuits.

Physical exercise and so-called brain food have long been regarded as good for mental health — exercise because it boosts blood circulation and gives the brain more oxygen; and foods rich in anti-oxidants, such as fish, fruits and vegetables, because the anti-oxidants attack cell-destroying agents.

But more recent attention is being focused on brain exercise because neuroscientists have been making fresh discoveries as baby boomers, worried about approaching old age, watch closely.

The nation’s 65-and-older population will double between 2000 and 2030 — from 35 million to 72 million people, and that forecast has triggered an entrepreneurial rush to supply them with anti-aging products.

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, in which a large number of the brain’s 200 billion nerve cells degrade and die. The Alzheimer’s population is projected to jump to 7.7 million Americans by 2030.

Brain decay actually is wider because all human brains lose nerve cells as they age. Brain neurons typically start dying when people are in their 20s, a loss that accelerates and eventually causes cognitive declines that tend to show up first in memory and hearing.

Scientists have known for decades that brain decay is not inevitable, because long-term studies have shown that some minds stay relatively sharp while others decline dramatically, said Shlomo Breznitz, a psychology professor and former president of Israel’s University of Haifa.

More recent studies suggest a key difference might be the extent to which each brain is challenged throughout life.

“People who engage in very challenging tasks — not just in work but during leisure activities such as reading, crossword puzzles, bridge, chess and travel — tend to slow down their mental aging process very significantly,” said Breznitz, who has developed a brain-training program called MindFit.

Here is the full article.

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