[Paleopsych] Wired: Brain Workouts May Tone Memory

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Brain Workouts May Tone Memory
    By [21]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 [25]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 [26]Maintain Your Brain, initiated a
    year ago by the Alzheimer's Association; Mind Alert, run by the
    [27]American Society on Aging; and other regional programs such as the
    [28]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 [29]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 [30]study published in the Journal of the American Medical
    Association surveyed 801 older Catholic nuns, priests and
    [31]brothers. The results linked reading newspapers and participating
    in other brain-stimulating activities with a reduced risk of

    A 2000 National Research Council [32]report commissioned by the
    National Institute on Aging found some brain exercises were worthy of
    government funding.

    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 [33]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 [34]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."


   21. http://www.wired.com/news/feedback/mail/1,2330,0-28-68409,00.html
   22. http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,68409,00.html
   25. http://www.cognitivecenter.org/default.asp
   26. http://www.alz.org/maintainyourbrain/overview.asp
   27. http://www.asaging.org/index.cfm
   28. http://www.centerforhealthyaging.com/CHA/ContactUs.htm
   29. http://www.alzheimers.org/nianews/nianews6.html
   31. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lay_brother
   32. http://www.nap.edu/books/0309069408/html/1.html
   34. http://www.whcoa.gov/

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