There's a big industry built around braintaining, using games and puzzles to avoid mental decline. But does it work? Studies are mixed, the answer uncertain.
Claims exceed what science has proven, according to brain expert Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy. He told New York Times' Tara Parker-Pope that "almost all the marketing claims made by all the companies go beyond the data. We need large national studies before you can conclude that it's ready for prime time."
Brain care should be a "lifespan issue, from womb to last breath," 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 in Pittsburgh, told the Deseret News several months ago. "The brain is highly dynamic, always reorganizing, and it can be shaped — for good or for bad."
There is no dispute now that the brain is not static, as was long believed. The old theory that you killed a brain cell and that was that is no longer considered valid. The human brain continues to form neural connections, which is one reason that people who have suffered brain injuries can learn to "work around" challenges.
The question is whether puzzles and games and do much to boost one's IQ or head off memory loss. It's a topic of grave concern to a lot of people as baby boomers enter their senior years and the number of people who have Alzheimer's or other dementias grows. As many as one-third of Americans will die with some type of dementia.
Researchers at the University of Oslo reviewed nearly two dozen studies to conclude that you can improve your skills at a game, but it doesn't mean other tasks see an effect from that.
On the other hand, a study in Nature from the University of California, San Francisco, showed that a driving game improved focus and short-term memory in senior citizens. Parker-Pope called those findings "signficant because the research found that improvements in performance weren't limited to the game, but also appeared to be linked to a strengthening of older brains over all, helping them to perform better at other memory and attention tasks."
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found cognitive training yielded gains in reasoning and speed that could last up to a decade. But that was just true of the type of skill to which the training was related. It didn't translate to broad overall improvement.
"Scientists not involved with the study called it unique and provocative, and said it unquestionably shows that older adults who receive brain training are able to maintain those skills over the long term," wrote Kay Lazar of the Boston Globe. It used pencil-and-paper tests to boost problem solving, rather than computer programs.
Whether you can "braintain" by mental exercise is an issue which the National Institutes of Health hopes to boost research.
Nutrition, stress, physical stress, poor sleep and dehydration are among things that can add to a brain's decline. Two years ago, studies of what helps the brain pointed to one thing consistently: Good old exercise, which gives long-term benefits for executive functions like planning and remembering and adapting. Some experts told the Deseret News exercise yields greater rewards than computer-based mental games. Exercise also impacts brain development not just for the elderly, but across age groups.
It increases the rate at which neurons form.
The Daily Journal Online explained how exercise helps brain maintenance. "Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to all parts of your body, including your brain, to keep the brain cells well nourished. So choose an aerobic activity you enjoy like walking, cycling, dancing, swimming, etc., that elevates your heart rate and do it for at least 30 to 40 minutes three times a week."
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