Mental Exercises May Ward Off Alzheimer's
Mental Exercises May Ward Off Alzheimer's
The Philadelphia Inquirer
February 16, 2004
he Philadelphia Inquirer - February 16, 2004 PHILADELPHIA
Visit the Philadelphia Senior Center
just after lunch on a Wednesday and youll see
more than a dozen people doing just what brain experts
recommend, though most of them dont know it.
There are three tables of pinochle players. A twosome
play chess. Upstairs, four men play dominoes. In short,
theyre using their brains.
Ask them why and most respond like 67-year-old Roosevelt
Cook, a retired dressmaker who plays pinochle almost
every day. "Its like Einsteins theory
of relativity," he said. "When youre
doing something that you dont like, time drags.
When youre doing something you like, the time
goes fast." Well, most of his fellow players
just say theyre having fun, but, like him, they
add that the games make them feel mentally sharper.
Only Lonnie Bowen, a retired social worker who is
playing chess, is looking further ahead. "I do
believe it does ward off Alzheimers," he
said. "It helps you keep your mind active."
Whether games by themselves directly stave off Alzheimers
is unclear, but a growing body of science is finding
that people who engage in mentally stimulating activities
are less likely to get the brain-robbing disease or,
at least, seem to develop its symptoms later.
And studies in animals have shown that, contrary to
the old scientific theory, new cells can generate
in the brain, and learning stimulates their growth.
The adage "use it or lose it" may apply
to your brain as well as your body, brain experts
The research, coupled with the aging baby boomers
terror of dementia, has spawned considerable interest
in memory _ both improving it now and saving it later.
A cottage "brain fitness" industry has blossomed,
peddling books, games, and now, online exercises.
Bruce Friedman, who runs mybraintrainer.com _ online
tests that focus on speed and memory _ said hes
negotiating with a national fitness company to offer
his program to its members as part of a new healthy
body, healthy mind program. (Mybraintrainer.com already
has a similar arrangement with Kaplan Test Prep.)
Advanced Brain Technologies in Utah, which produces
Brain Builder software, is about to go online with
a competing game. Its president, Alex Doman, is expecting
100,000 subscribers over the first two years. A Downingtown,
Pa., native, Doman is discussing using the program,
aimed at improving "auditory and visual sequential
processing," in schools and government facilities.
"I call it the memory fitness movement,"
said Gary Small, a geriatric psychiatrist who wrote
"The Memory Bible" and directs UCLAs
Center on Aging. He chairs the medical and scientific
advisory board for the Memory Fitness Institute, scheduled
to open its first Memory Fitness Center March 4 in
Minneapolis. The center, he said, will offer state-of-the-art
diagnosis of memory problems and strategies for "improving
memory ability and brain fitness."
Its hard to imagine a downside to a world where
people turn off "Fear Factor" to finish
the New York Times crossword puzzle or exercise their
brains online, but experts caution that the science
of memory trails behind some of the conclusions people
The area is "ripe for snake oil salesmen,"
said Samuel Gandy, director of Thomas Jefferson Universitys
Farber Institute for Neurosciences.
Various studies have found a lower risk of Alzheimers
among people who frequently go to the theater; read;
play games such as cards, checkers or crosswords;
go to museums; even watch television. Dancing and
playing a musical instrument had a protective effect
in one study. Frequent social interaction also looks
like a plus.
But Alzheimers experts say its too early
to conclude that any type of mental activity is better
Its also too early to know exactly what role
mentally stimulating activities play in Alzheimers.
Scientists have known for years that people with more
education are less likely to become demented, and
educated people tend to like difficult games. Scientists
dont know whether more education or game-playing
prevents Alzheimers, or whether some other aspect
of the way educated people live or use their brains
is more important.
One possibility is that dementia affects behaviors
like game-playing long before recognized symptoms
Another theory is that education and other mentally
stimulating activities cause the brain to build a
richer network of neural pathways, creating a cognitive
reserve. They may develop the same physical pathology
in the brain as others with Alzheimers, but
they can function longer because their brains have
better backup systems.
Scientists believe Alzheimers in most patients
results from a combination of genetic and environmental
factors. Some people were born with genes that virtually
guarantee they will develop the disease. Everyone
knows of brilliant professors or great writers who
have gotten Alzheimers. Its clear, then,
that frequent and challenging use of the brain is
no guarantee it will forever serve us well.
No one has yet proven that taking up chess in midlife
after squandering your brainpower in your youth will
help you remember your kids names when youre
80. But animal research has shown that stimulating
activities lead adult animals to develop more brain
One study found that, with training, elderly humans
improved several types of thinking skills _ memory,
reasoning, speed of processing _ and the improvements
stuck for at least two years.
But the study also found that, unlike an aerobic exercise
that benefits the whole body, exercising one part
of the brain didnt seem to strengthen others.
Learning to make quicker decisions, for example, didnt
improve memory, and vice versa.
Though theres no definitive proof yet, it makes
sense, experts said, that using your brain will be
good for it.
"It would seem that using anything is good for
it, whether its muscles or brainpower or whatever,"
said Claudia Kawas, professor in the departments of
neurology, and neurobiology and behavior at University
"I really believe that keeping an active lifestyle
both physically and mentally is a good idea, but as
a data-driven scientist, I have to tell you that the
data is not ideal."
Many people get a lot of mental stimulation at work,
but dont plan for continuing it once they retire,
said Joe Verghese, a neurologist at Albert Einstein
College of Medicine. "Suddenly theres this
dramatic decline in their activities, and I think
thats a danger point," said Verghese, a
regular Scrabble player.
At the least, he added, keeping your brain active
after retirement will "improve your quality of
life and reduce your chance for other diseases like
Christopher Clark, director of the University of Pennsylvanias
Memory Disorders Clinic, agrees with him, but worries
that dementia patients caregivers will go overboard.
People should play games they like, he said, and no
one should pressure those whose memories already are
failing to do tasks they find too hard. He doesnt
want to hear that people are saying, "Look Dad,
youre doing the New York Times crossword puzzle,
no matter what."
Given the state of the research now, doctors who study
Alzheimers disease say people worried about
their memories should eat right, exercise, and have
fun using their brains.
"Try to pick a cognitive activity that you think
is fun and stimulating and thats probably good
for you," said Robert S. Wilson, director of
cognitive neuroscience at Rush University Medical
(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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