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Braintaining : Lifelong feeding and care of an agile, healthy mind

Published: Tuesday, July 2 2013 4:40 p.m. MDT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jane Blume was part way down a building, rappelling for charity, when her exhausted body temporarily gave out. She dangled briefly, resting. At 70, she pushes her limits — she takes dance classes, volunteers, runs a public relations firm and is rehearsing for a flash mob. She walks at least a mile a day.

Her full life is also one of preventive braintenance — providing feeding and care to her brain so it stays as agile and healthy as possible.

Brain care should be a "lifespan issue, from womb to last breath," said Dr. Paul Nussbaum, chairman of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's Prevention Advisory Board, clinical neuropsychologist and founder and president of the Brain Health Center, opening in Pittsburgh this fall. "The brain is highly dynamic, always reorganizing, and it can be shaped — for good or for bad."

While even youngsters know they need to exercise, eat well and stay fit to be healthy, helping the brain is often overlooked, said Alvaro Fernandez, co-author and CEO of "The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness," a market research firm that tracks brain science.

Those physical things are crucial to brain health. But the brain needs more. It wants to be challenged and entertained, amused and frustrated, soothed and loved. A healthy brain lifestyle, said Nussbaum, covers five bases — nutrition, physical activity, mental stimulation, socialization and spirituality.

Work in progress

Not all efforts at improving brain health are created equal; there are critics and advocates galore. Individual programs that claim results may be inconsistent in quality and result. "Some work well, some are a joke," Fernandez said.

Still, no one disputes the brain can be improved at any age, even with dementia. Putting in as little as 20 hours can help. Evidence is so compelling, some schools offer students working-memory and brain-targeted programs, Fernandez said. AARP in some states has a program to improve cognitive abilities for safe driving, which decline after 50. It's becoming well-accepted that Alzheimer's symptoms may be delayed, Fernandez said. Stimulating development of lots of neurons provides some protection.

Brain health has spawned an industry, from companies like Fit Brains and Lumosity that offer games and exercises to stimulate the brain to books on staying or getting sharp. Many are written by researchers, programs often designed with universities.

Lumosity's vice president of research and development, Joe Hardy, said his company has 38 university-based research collaborations at top universities and has amassed "an enormous database of human cognitive performance, the result of having 40 million-plus users on our site."

Concern about maintaining mental agility has never been greater, fueled in part by the fact that a huge segment of the population, baby boomers, are now in or entering their senior years. At the same time, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease and one-third of Americans will die with it or another dementia. It's a huge financial and emotional toll on individuals and families. At the same time, medicine now allows people to live longer with various conditions that would otherwise have killed them, so maintaining mental fitness is crucial. That need to stay sharp is one reason Blume found herself dangling off a building; she saw her father, a physician, retire and decline rapidly.

The database has not only helped Lumosity figure out how the brain works and which exercises help, but tasks and times. They know intense concentration is easier in the morning, creative tasks best done after noon for most. As the evening passes, "performance of every type drops off. Midnight is the low point."

Mix it up

Building up the brain requires novelty, effort and challenge.

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