An Active Brain Remains Sharper With Age

An Active Brain Remains Sharper With Age

Posted on February 1, 2014 by ElderCare Resources Phoenix in Alzheimers Care, Blog, Caregiver Education, Dementia Care, Education, Independent Living, Memory Loss

By: Dr. David Lipschitz

By the time we reach the age of 85 and beyond, the risk of memory loss approaches 50 percent. And for many, the cause is Alzheimer’s disease.

Sadly, memory loss eventually leads to loss of independence, making it difficult to live alone without help. Currently, there is no way to prevent or cure the abnormalities in the brain that lead to memory loss.

However, much can be done to help the brain compensate for these abnormalities, preventing the development of symptoms for many years.

One example is to “exercise the mind.” This approach is supported by a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, which shows that older persons, who took part in training classes to improve brain function, noted benefits lasting as long as 10 years after completion of the training. And benefits improved if they participated in booster courses during subsequent years.

This study involved 2,800 healthy subjects whose ages averaged 73 at the start of the study. They were divided into four groups. The first group had no brain training. The second had training to improve memory by learning how to retain word lists, sequences of items and contents of a story. The third learned how to reason by solving problems and following patterns, including filling in blanks from a series of numbers or letters. And the fourth group was taught speed of processing by using a computer-based program that improved their ability to retain visual information, remember phone numbers or react to changes in traffic while driving.

Immediately following a course of 10 training sessions over a 5-week period, significant improvement in brain function was noted but only in the component that received training. Ten years later, the researchers retested the brain function of the original study participants.

Only half of the original group was available. Remarkably over 60 percent of the trained individuals had maintained or improved their initial ability to perform functions, such as appropriately taking medications, cooking or managing finances. After 10 years, the groups receiving processing-speed or reasoning training were significantly better than the untrained group. But the benefits of memory training only lasted five years.

The study also showed that subjects who received booster training at 11 and 35 months produced greater and more durable improvement in brain function over the 10-year period.

This study focused on whether brain stimulation can improve mental agility, and did not focus on whether it delayed the onset of Alzheimer’s or other causes of memory loss. However, it is highly likely that exercising the brain as much as possible by being a lifelong learner will maintain a healthier brain more able to cope with the destruction caused by the disease.

There is plenty of evidence that more educated persons who attended college and have advanced degrees were far less likely to develop memory loss than those who did not. And if they did, symptoms occurred at an older age. The most compelling support for this notion comes from the study of identical twins. Without exception, the more educated and intellectually active one developed memory loss at a much older age.

How could brain training prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s? The disease affects a specific area of the brain, begins 20 years before symptoms develop and progresses very slowly.

The ability of the individual to cope with and compensate for the damage depends on the health of the rest of the brain. If the brain has been damaged by high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes or elevated cholesterol, the ability to compensate is impaired, and memory loss begins at an early age. Similarly, the more intellectually stimulated the brain, the healthier, and the later memory loss develops.

Being a lifelong learner and participating in supervised activity, or any activity that challenges intellectual function, is a no-brainer when it comes to maintaining a sharp mind with advancing age. Just as important is active socializing, as much physical exercise as possible and compulsive approaches to preventing chronic illness, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and elevated cholesterol.

The healthier and happier you are, the more likely you are to be as sharp as a tack and live a long independent life.

Dr. David Lipschitz is the author of the book “Breaking the Rules of Aging.”

Published:  Lake County News-Sun