Can You “Game” Your Way to Improved Brain Health?

By: Dr. Christine Horner

 

"Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory."
-Albert Schweitzer

How many times have you walked in a room and forgot what you went in there for? I don't know about you, but for me, a more appropriate question would be-how many times a day? I can't remember...when I lost my ability to effortlessly multi-task 6 projects at a time, or successfully leave a room with the item I specifically went in there to get. Researchers say that for most of us, we start to notice these changes as we approach our 50's. Yes, you guessed it-I'm well into the decade of the beginning of forgetfulness.

As we age, "senior moments" become more common for all of us. But, when you forget where you put your car keys...for the third time today... could that be a sign you are in the early stages of dementia? Possibly-and you definitely want to see your doctor if you have any of the warning signs (read about them at www.alz.org). But chances are, it is not. You might be wondering if there is anything you can do to keep your brain sharp, or is it an inevitable part of aging that you'll gradually lose your memory?

Memory loss may seem normal with aging, because an estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease-the most severe form of dementia. But, memory loss is not normal. Dementia is a disease. The good news is that just like all the other chronic diseases associated with aging-such as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and cancer-dementia is largely preventable.

Brains love vegetables too

That's right, simple diet and lifestyle changes can dramatically lower your risk of this heartbreaking disease that plagues too many people. Avoiding inflammation-promoting foods such as sugar, refined carbohydrates, red meat, gluten, casein, fast foods, processed foods and excessive alcohol; and favoring fresh organically-grown fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and plenty of healthy omega-3 fatty acids is key. Certain dietary supplements and herbs including turmeric, alpha lipoic acid, ginkgo biloba, brahmi, gotu kola, probiotics; and vitamins C, D, E and B12 have all been shown to make a significant difference in keeping your brain healthy.

Lifestyle choices have a substantial influence on your risk, too. Smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, social isolation, exposure to toxins such as heavy metals and pesticides, stress, and staying up too late are significant risk factors. Whereas, practicing stress-reducing techniques such as meditation and yoga, limiting alcohol to one or two drinks a day, surrounding yourself with good friends, and getting plenty of exercise and proper rest keeps your brain and the rest of your body humming.

Exercising your brain

What about all those brain exercises you may have heard about, such as crossword puzzles or computer generated brain-training programs? Do they really work? Research shows they do. We used to think the functional decline of the brain was unavoidable because the brain machinery wore down over time. But, researchers have discovered that the brain has plasticity and changes all the time based on how we take care of it and use it. If you regularly feed it what it likes, move your body enough to get your blood pumping, and do mental activities that fire a lot of neurons, your brain will stay in top form and keep working well.

Crossword puzzles are great for your brain, but studies show there are brain exercises that you can do that are even better. Several companies offer computer-based cognitive training that you can do at home. Two training programs in particular, Lumosity (http://www.lumosity.com/) and Posit Science (http://www.positscience.com/ ) have numerous randomized-controlled studies documenting that their programs are associated with greatly enhanced cognitive abilities after a short time.

For example, a study published in the Mensa Research Journal in 2011 investigated the effects of the web-based Lumosity cognitive training program on enhancing the attention and memory of healthy adults. Trained subjects completed twenty minute online cognitive exercise sessions, once daily for five weeks, while control participants received no training. The training program consisted of four exercises designed to enhance the brain's ability to focus on visual attention and working memory. The trained group improved significantly more than the control group on both parameters.

The Posit Science program was employed in a randomized study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease in 2011 which analyzed the effects of this cognitive training program on subjects with mild cognitive impairment. Participants used this home-based computer program 100 minutes per day, five days a week for an average 29 sessions over two months. Verbal memory score and memory performance improved significantly in the trained subjects. MRI scans in this group showed that the left hippocampal area of their brains-an area most commonly affected in cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer's, and essential for consciously recollected memory-had significant increases in activity relative to the control group.

Lasting Results

The results of these focused cognitive training programs aren't just immediate-they can last for years. A 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported on The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Study (ACTIVE Study). This was the first large-scale, randomized trial to show that cognitive training improves cognitive function in well-functioning older adults and that this improvement lasts up to five years from the beginning of the intervention.

Staying Sharp

Staying sharp and avoiding dementia-just like heart disease, diabetes and many cancers-is all about diet and lifestyle. Your brain will stay happy if you load up on fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and healthy oils; nix the "bad stuff" such as processed foods and sugars. Take some great antioxidant supplements and brain-nourishing herbs. Get off the couch and move your body, and go to bed by 10 PM. And don't forget...to exercise your brain, too. Check out the Lumosity and Posit Science programs on the web. They have sample exercises you can try for free. You might still lose your keys every once in a while, but the chances are, you will not lose your mind!

References

  1. Rosen, A. et al "Cognitive training changes hippocampal function in mild cognitive impairment: a pilot study." J Alzheimers Dis. 2011;26 Suppl 3:349-57. doi: 10.3233/JAD-2011-0009.
  2. Takeuchi H , Sekiguchi A , Taki Y , et al.  Training of working memory impacts structural connectivity." J Neurosci .2010;30:3297-3303
  3. Kesler, S. et al "Cognitive training for improving executive function in chemotherapy-treated breast cancer survivors." Clin Breast Cancer. 2013 Aug;13(4):299-306. doi: 10.1016/j.clbc.2013.02.004. Epub 2013 May
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  5. Wolinsky F., et al "A randomized controlled trial of cognitive training using a visual speed of processing intervention in middle aged and older adults." PLoS One. 2013 May 1;8(5):e61624. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0061624. Print 2013.
  6. Mowszowski L, Batchelor J, Naismith SL. "Early intervention for cognitive decline: can cognitive training be used as a selective prevention technique?"  Int Psychogeriatr . 2010;1-12
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  8. Mozolic JL , Hayasaka S , Laurienti PJ . "A cognitive training intervention increases resting cerebral blood flow in healthy older adults." Front Hum Neurosci. 2010;4:16
  9. Zelinski EM , Spina LM , Yaffe K , et al.  "Improvement in memory with plasticity-based adaptive cognitive training: results of the 3-month follow-up." J Am Geriatr Soc. 2011;59:258-265
  10. Mozolic JL, Long AB , Morgan AR , et al.  "A cognitive training intervention improves modality-specific attention in a randomized controlled trial of healthy older adults."  Neurobiol Aging . 2011;32:655-668
  11. Hardy, J. et al. "Enhancing visual attention and working memory with a web-based cognitive training program." Memsa Research Journal 2011; Vol. 42(2)
  12. Willis SL, Tennstedt SL , Marsiske M , et al.  "Long-term effects of cognitive training on everyday functional outcomes in older adults." JAMA. 2006;296:2805-2814
  13. Vitamin E may offer benefits for patients with Alzheimer's disease. www.mercola.com Jan. 23, 2014.
  14. Tarumi TZhang R. "Cerebral hemodynamics of the aging brain: risk of Alzheimer disease and benefit of aerobic exercise." Front Physiol. 2014 Jan 21;5:6. eCollection 2014.
  15. Angevaren, M. et al. "Physical Activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Apr 16

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