[Paleopsych] Wired: Brain Workouts May Tone Memory
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Sat Aug 6 01:27:51 UTC 2005
Brain Workouts May Tone Memory
By Joanna Glasner
It's common knowledge that a proper exercise regimen can do wonders
for the body. Only recently, however, have psychologists and
gerontologists aggressively applied the same principle to the mind.
Among people who work with older adults, the concept of "cognitive
fitness" has become a buzzword to describe activities that stimulate
underutilized areas of the brain and improve memory. Proponents of
brain-fitness exercises say such mental conditioning can help prevent
or delay memory loss and the onset of other age-related cognitive
"Most people's idea of fitness stops at the neck," said Patti Celori,
executive director of the New England Cognitive Center. "But the
brain is the CPU of our body, and most people don't do much to keep it
as fit as possible."
The NECC runs one of a growing number of programs that work with older
adults to improve cognitive abilities. Activities include computer
programs designed to stimulate specific areas of the brain,
replication of geometric designs using boards with pegs and rubber
bands, and visual and auditory memory exercises.
Some of the other programs are Maintain Your Brain, initiated a
year ago by the Alzheimer's Association; Mind Alert, run by the
American Society on Aging; and other regional programs such as the
Center for Healthy Aging in Kent, Ohio.
For do-it-yourself types, a plethora of books have been published on
getting the brain in shape. Paula Hartman-Stein, a geropsychologist at
the Center for Healthy Aging, recommends The Better Brain Book, by
David Perlmutter and Carol Colman, and The Memory Bible by Gary Small.
One purpose of mental exercises is to reinforce the idea that "in
aging, not everything is downhill," said Elkhonon Goldberg, a
Manhattan neuropsychologist and author of The Wisdom Paradox, which
examines how some people grow wiser with age.
"There are gains that are subsequent and consequent to a lifelong
history of mental activity and mental striving," Goldberg said. He
also believes brain exercises can benefit adults suffering from mild
cognitive impairment, and he has developed computer puzzles designed
to help them stimulate different areas of their brain.
It's not clear how much targeted brain exercises can prevent the onset
of cognitive disorders in older adults. But some findings indicate
that high cognitive ability is tied to a lower risk of Alzheimer's.
One of the most extensive and widely cited investigations on the
subject, the landmark Nun Study, tracked 100 Milwaukee nuns who
had written autobiographies in the 1930s. More than 50 years later,
scientists gave them cognitive tests and examined the brain tissue of
nuns who died. Those who demonstrated lower linguistic ability in the
autobiographies were at greater risk for Alzheimer's disease.
A similar study published in the Journal of the American Medical
Association surveyed 801 older Catholic nuns, priests and
brothers. The results linked reading newspapers and participating
in other brain-stimulating activities with a reduced risk of
A 2000 National Research Council report commissioned by the
National Institute on Aging found some brain exercises were worthy of
But skeptics question whether beginning an active regimen of brain
teasers late in life will do much to prevent brain disorders.
Research to date provides scant evidence that mental exercise can
stave off dementia, wrote Margaret Gatz, a psychology professor at the
University of Southern California, in an article published by the
Public Library of Science.
Gatz wrote in an e-mail that she would be more convinced if
researchers randomly assigned cognitive training, then followed study
subjects over several decades.
She also said she was concerned that too much emphasis on the benefits
of mental fitness could stigmatize Alzheimer's patients.
"If mental exercise is widely believed to prevent (Alzheimer's
disease), then individuals who do become demented may be blamed for
their disease on the grounds of not having exercised their brains
enough," she said.
Still, supporters of cognitive-fitness programs are pushing for
greater recognition from the federal government. During December
information-gathering sessions leading up to the White House
Conference on Aging, conference representatives said several speakers
have made a case that brain health ought to be promoted in much the
same way that physical fitness is today.
Few people see much downside in pursuing brain-stimulating activities,
said Nancy Ceridwyn, special-projects director at the American Society
on Aging. Puzzles, spelling practice, memory exercises or book
discussions don't pose much harm.
That said, Ceridwyn isn't convinced that all the brain exercises being
offered today are practical. She wonders whether workbooks that ask
adults to do pages of math problems to get their brains in gear might
be unnecessarily torturing people in their twilight years.
"How many people are going to get up and say, 'I'm excited about doing
my multiplication tables today'?" she said. "Not many."
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