- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

Are crosswords and number puzzles, brainteasers or memory games part of your New Year’s fitness regime? Regularly exercising the mind — along with the body — can pay off with improved mental performance among people of all ages, numerous studies have demonstrated in recent years.

The first evidence that people need to “use it or lose it” when it comes to mental acuity was drawn from large “look back” studies involving thousands of seniors. After five or 10 years, when a significant number of the elderly subjects had developed dementia, researchers compared their habits with those who had not experienced a cognitive decline.

What stood out was that those who avoided dementia kept their minds challenged in some way — reading, playing board games, playing a musical instrument, doing puzzles or learning a new language.

But those kinds of studies leave open the possibility something else the seniors were doing protected their minds, or that people whose minds are sharper tend to do more mentally challenging things. So more recently, researchers have set up more controlled experiments using specific exercises, often set up on computers, requiring people to recall words or numbers they have just heard, or reason through a “word problem” or organize a list of items into categories.

One study, reported last summer by California researchers, found doing computerized brain training for 90 to 100 minutes a day, five days a week, for an average of six weeks gave seniors with mild cognitive impairment a boost in memory, particularly visual memory — remembering tasks shown, like operating a TV remote. A control group that did other computer tasks, such as playing video games, showed no memory improvements.

Then, last month, researchers at several major institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health, reported the five-year results of a program that gave a group of more than 2,800 seniors (average age: 73) one of three sets of exercises intended to hone memory, reasoning or speed of processing, along with a control group that did no drills.

Each intervention group got 10 training sessions lasting about an hour. About 150 subjects in each group got four sessions of “booster” training 11 months and 35 months later. Overall, those who got any type of brain training performed 75 percent better than the control group.

After five years, participants were tested for their ability to manage everyday tasks, such as shopping, driving and managing money. Those who got the booster sessions on speed of mental processing did substantially better than the control group in tasks like reacting to road signs or checking ingredients on a medicine bottle. The reasoning group also reported fewer short-term-memory problems.

“The improvements seen after the training roughly counteract the degree of decline … we would expect to see over a seven- to 14-year period among older people without dementia,” said Sherry Willis, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University who led the study.

As to the rest of the body — and population — there is lots of research that shows mental training can help improve performance in people down to school age.

Physical exercise — anything aerobic enough to get the blood flowing — has also shown benefits for the brain, probably because it helps keep small blood vessels healthy, and protects against other conditions that can contribute to dementia, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

“The latest research suggests that mental training and physical activity both have promise for preventing declines in cognition,” said Sally Shumaker, a professor of public health sciences and an expert in dementia at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

“It’s possible to envision a future treatment approach that combines lifestyle and drug treatments to meet the specific needs of each individual,” she added.

It may take a while for researchers to come up with ways to evaluate each person’s risk for certain types of memory decline, as well as more serious degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. But in the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to keep working all the muscles, including the organ between the ears.

Lee Bowman writes for Scripps Howard News Service.

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