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Mind games: Play them now, build brain power for later



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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MIAMI - OK, we're getting our bodies in shape.

Now, it's time to do a boot camp for your brain.

A growing body of research has concluded that by keeping your mind active, you may stave off the memory loss and diminished brain functions associated with aging. Physical exercise and a healthy diet can boost the brain, too.

''If you start in your 30s or 40s, you have four or five decades to control these factors that come into operation that can have a very dramatic effect,'' says Dr. Ranjan Duara, medical director of the Wien Center for Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

So, bravo to the crossword-puzzle-a-day crew, the amateur CPAs doing their own taxes, the polyglots who add one more language to their repertoire. Any and all of these activities done in earlier life can help bolster the mind in old age, a concept experts call ''the cognitive reserve'' theory.

Jeanette Tristman of Miami Beach has lived her life by that creed. At 86, she spends hours on the computer, does crossword puzzles, and reads voraciously.

''This is the only way to do it,'' she says. ``If you don't use it, you lose it.''

Some experts, however, doubt these exercises have an inside track of lowering the risk of cognitive decline. Without hard data to support such claims, it's just too early to know, says David Loewenstein, director of research at the Wien Center.

WATCH EXTREMES

''It can't hurt to stay mentally active, but anything that's good can also be taken to an extreme,'' says Loewenstein, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami. 'I have people ask me, `My God, do I have to play Scrabble six hours a day?' ''

In the past, conventional wisdom held that brains did not grow cells after a certain point. But research has shown that lab animals that navigated mazes in captivity buffed up their hippocampus, a part of the brain involved with storing memories. It's not known whether mental activity has a similar effect on human brains, but research holds that what one does now can pay off later.

''What you put in earlier in adulthood and middle age can help you guard against some of the other aspects of cognitive decline in later life,'' said University of Florida psychologist Michael Marsiske.

To help people stockpile that mental capacity, ''brain gyms'' have proliferated on the web, with names ranging from MyBrainTrainer.com to HappyNeuron.com, each one promising a collection of mental calisthenics.

At Memory Concepts, subscribers pay an annual fee of $99 to pump mental iron with exercises that tax five aspects of memory - language, executive function (problem-solving), visual-spatial skills, and long- and short-term memory.

Watching two family members suffer from Alzheimer's disease inspired founder Janet B. Walsh to create her own mental exercises, like taking art classes and brushing her teeth with her nondominant hand. Eventually she paired with a neuropsychologist to develop a program, which she likens to training at the gym.

''You really need someone to show you how to lift weights properly or run on that treadmill properly,'' says Walsh, 48, of Long Island. ``We're actually saying the mind has the same capacity and we're just going to help you along.''

But others say the toughest mind games may do little to enhance people's ability to function in the real world as they age. One of the largest studies to date of older adults' cognitive abilities, the National Institute of Aging's ACTIVE trial (for Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly), demonstrated that while the subjects aced memory and problem solving tests on paper, they registered no improvement in daily living. This result suggests that structured classes or even exercises found on the Web may be misguided, says University of Florida psychologist Marsiske, one of the principal investigators.

''It's acontextual. It's not related to real life,'' he says.

Rather than taking classes on how to improve one's memory, he said, people should engage in real-life activities such as going to the library or taking courses that spark one's mind.

DIET AND FITNESS

Intellectual activity alone does not necessarily suffice. Physical fitness and a healthy diet, important for maintaining sound bodies, helps maintain sound minds.

One recent National Institute of Aging study found that after six months of regular aerobic exercise, seniors improved their recall ability by 25 percent, according to cognitive function tests performed at the beginning and end of the period. Those who engaged in nonaerobic exercise for that same period saw no benefit.

Earlier this month at the Alzheimer's Association meeting in Philadelphia, a Harvard doctor reported that middle-aged women who ate vegetables, particularly leafy greens, stayed sharper than their counterparts who turned their noses up at this food group.

''These are all good things when it comes to brain health,'' says Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and co-author of The Memory Prescription (Hyperion, 2004). ``What's good for your brain is also good for your heart.''

In his book, Small describes a four-pronged plan to improve the memory in just two weeks, calling it ''a boot camp for the brain.'' The plan melds memory exercises, physical activity, a diet high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, and stress reduction.

Neuro-imaging scans showed that in just two weeks, a group of volunteers, age 30 on up, saw a 5 percent improvement in the efficiency of their brain function, Small says. Their stress levels and blood pressure dipped.

Now, he hopes to follow people over the long term to see if the results will continue to accrue.

''If we can get such dramatic results in two weeks, imagine if people did this for two months or two years. I would predict that it would lower the rate of Alzheimer's,'' he says. ``This may not cure it, but if we can stave it off for six months or a year, it would have a huge impact on public health.''

For some, memory problems are not a symptom of old age but a way of life. All his life, Ira Abrams, 71, has had trouble recalling people's names. At social gatherings, the Aventura man would station his wife by his side and whisper a constant stream of ''what's his name, what's her name'' to her.

Years ago, he joined the brain gym of his generation, taking a class to hone his ability to recall names. ''That memory course,'' he says, ``from, oh . . . what's his name.''

A beat passes. He hems nervously and then blurts out, ''Dale Carnegie,'' as the answer bubbles up from the inner recesses of his memory.

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(c) 2004, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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