Tips On Keeping Brain Fit Into Old Age
The fitness-obsessed are turning their attention to their brains as well as their muscles, if sales figures for brain fitness software are any indication. The industry's revenue more than tripled between 2005 and 2007, from $250 million to $850 million.
While buying brain fitness software and literature may be fun, it's really not necessary to stay mentally fit, says Khaled Imam, M.D., director of Geriatric Medicine at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak (Mich.). Genetics plays a role and may be beyond our control. But to give yourself the advantage, he recommends physical exercise, treatment for cardiovascular risk factors, a healthy diet and mental exercises such as Sudoku, crossword puzzles or book discussion groups.
Dr. Imam even has good news for older adults who want to do everything they can to hold off mental decline.
"It's never too late to start," he says.
Dr. Imam cites a study that showed physical exercise three or four times a week not only kept the heart and brain healthy, it delayed the onset of dementia. Another recent study, of Canadian women older than 65, showed that those who exercised aerobically on a regular basis had brain function scores 10 percent higher than those who did not exercise. The active women had better vascular responses in the brain, suggesting that they could think better due to increased blood flow.
The Beaumont expert cites ballroom dancing as an example of physical exercise that may be beneficial to the brain in three ways: participants exercise their memory by memorizing the steps; the activity helps with awareness of a person's surroundings, or orientation; and the movement increases blood flow to the brain.
Exercising the brain helps too. Dr. Imam says it's especially important to engage the parts of the brain associated with active endeavors. So while reading a book is fine, it's really a passive activity. Discussing the book is what will really get the brain going. In fact, PET scans that show brain activity indicate that hearing, speaking, seeing and thinking about words all activate different parts of the brain.
Treating cardiovascular risk factors - high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure - delays the onset of cognitive impairment. In one European study, the incidence of dementia (including Alzheimer's disease) was 50 percent lower in people with well-controlled high blood pressure.
Diet plays a role as well. The naturally occurring antioxidants found in abundance in fruits and vegetables such as oranges, blueberries and red grapes protect the brain from damage or delay its onset. Unfortunately, there is no comparable effect from taking antioxidant pills. Vitamin D, a powerhouse vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium, may also protect the brain against decline. Dr. Imam recommends taking a supplement of 800 international units a day.
U.S.News & World Report ranked Beaumont, Royal Oak as one of "America's Best Hospitals" for Geriatrics services. Beaumont has developed special geriatric services dedicated to older adults, including a Geriatric Clinic. The hospital offers the AARP's Mature Driving Class. In this two-session class, AARP instructors review the 'rules of the road'. Upon completing the two sessions, participants receive a certificate that may entitle them to a discount with their auto insurance carrier.