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Mental Aerobics 

Exercising your body is important, and your brain is a big part of that

By now everyone knows if you want to maintain muscle strength and endurance, you have to exercise. But it is becoming more and more apparent that the mind needs exercise as well. By training your brain and developing what’s called “cognitive reserve” you may well insulate yourself from the declining memory and function that most people fear most as they age.

Think about it this way — your brain is like a savings account. Building up extra capacity, by keeping your mind as active and agile as possible, means that in case you do experience a condition that robs you of some of your brain power, you’ve got a lot to lose before it affects your ability to conduct the basic activities of your life. Like exercise for the rest of the body, exercise for the brain tends to be somewhat specific. You’re going to need to cross-train. Just doing the same old crossword puzzles you’ve done for years may keep your language areas strong, but you may need to consider other exercises that promote brain functionin other realms. Learning something new — taking up an instrument or learning a language — is always a challenge. Think about developing activities that train many aspects of mental function: speed, accuracy, focus, attention and memory.

While there are changes noted in brain activity with aging, the jury is still out on whether those changes may be at least partly due to lack of stimulation and engagement that can occur later in life. In fact, researchers have found that the brains of older people working on a specific task in many instances were less efficient than the brains of younger people. But that was not the case in all the older people, meaning the change in brain activity wasn’t just a function of age. And in fact, when older people practiced the activity for a few hours, their brains showed a more efficient pattern of activation, just like the younger brains.

In particular, attention and focus are considered trainable functions, and they may be stimulated especially well by games rewarding a fast and accurate response, even if the subject matter itself is not particularly challenging.

A dozen seniors braved snow and ice to attend a Brain Aerobics class at Spokane’s Southside Senior Center recently.

“We did sudoku puzzles. Then I had some optical illusions for them to look at to see what they could see,” says Colleen Messling, development and program director at the center. “And we did a brain exercise looking at how many f’s you see in a paragraph.”

The trick was that most people don’t count the f’s in “of” because phonetically they sound like v’s. That type of attention to detail may not be a part of a typical day’s activities for many seniors. Messling also handed out tips to improve brain function — things like getting enough sleep and having a well-balanced diet — and reminded her students, “Each time you learn something new, your brain is building a new pathway.”

Seniors attending the Brain Aerobics class may get more out of it than just the games however. A new study shows 10 minutes of socialization and conversation also help improve memory.

If you can’t get to a center to exercise your mind with other people, there are lots of other ways you can work out. Nintendo’s Big Brain Academy offers activities based on logic, memorization, matching shapes and patterns, analysis and rapid-fire mathematics. As you answer correctly, the difficulty automatically increases. The game works on the Nintendo DS, which uses a stylus, meaning you won’t have to develop the amazing thumb control your grandkids demonstrate on their video games. 

For the computer savvy, the AARP Website has a bunch of free games, including trivia, crossword puzzles and word games. There’s even a brain fitness workout section sponsored by Happy Neuron, a company founded to promote brain fitness in older people.

Playing The Odds

While no one would recommend gambling with one’s health, a lot of people do just that by ignoring commonsense health recommendations. A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that things such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and not smoking during the early elderly years are associated with longer life.

That seems pretty obvious, but often people attribute a long life to good luck, or dismiss it as “in the genes.” They might be surprised to learn that only about 25 percent of the variation in human life span is attributed to genetics, leaving 75 percent that is potentially based on risk factors over which a person has some control. Thus researchers looked at a large sample of men to see what effects certain behaviors had on lifespan. It helps to think about the results in terms of an average 70-year-old man who does not smoke and has normal blood pressure and weight, and exercises two to four times a week. He has a 54 percent chance of living to age 90. Not too bad, all things considered. That means more than half of the fellows like him will reach a ripe old age.

But let’s start adding in those modifiable risk factors and see what happens. Say our average Joe has a sedentary lifestyle. The odds of making it to 90 go down to 44 percent. Hypertension? Only a 36 percent chance of making it to 90. Obesity? Make that 26 percent. Smoking? Just 22 percent will reach their 90th birthdays. A trifecta of sedentary lifestyle, obesity and diabetes leaves just a 14 percent chance of making it to 90. And for those who smoke, sit in their chairs, gain weight and suffer from diabetes? Just 4 out of 100 will live another 20 years. Those are some odds worth paying attention to.

Brain Aerobics is held every Friday morning from 10 to 11:30 at Spokane’s Southside Senior Center. Cost is $1.

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