You go to the gym to exercise your muscles, so why not use a "brain gym" to exercise your mind? Several companies will gladly sell you computer games that promise to give it a good workout.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that those types of workouts result in people getting better at the puzzles, not getting better in the cognitive function needed in day-to-day living.
Or, at least there is not yet enough empirical evidence to show that they do. When studies show that people who do brain teasers and memory challenges don't perform better on tests of general memory and cognitive skill than people who don't do the games, the manufacturers of games — offered by companies such as lumosity.com and mybrainsolutions.com — argue that the studies didn't run long enough. In other words, if people did the games for years, they might improve their general cognitive ability.
And they might. All we know is that so far no study has run long enough to show a difference.
For that, it takes activities such as reading books and writing to slow down the cognitive decline that comes with aging, according to an article in Neurology.
The authors studied the brain autopsies of 294 people in the Rush Memory and Aging Project in Chicago and compared the autopsy results to tests of memory and thinking that the people had taken annually for at least six years before they died at an average age of 89. The brains of people who reported that they engaged in mentally stimulating activities such as reading, writing and engaging in conversation had about 15 percent less of the protein debris associated with Alzheimer's disease.
The rate of decline was reduced by 32 percent in people who engaged in more frequent mental activity late in life compared with people with average mental activity.
"Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person's lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age," said lead author Robert S. Wilson of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago when announcing the study results. "Based on this, we shouldn't underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents."
A 2009 study in Neurobiology of Aging points out that mental ability peaks around age 22 and begins to decline slowly by 27. By 37, memory decline can be detected, although vocabulary and general knowledge keeps increasing until around age 60. The study suggests that fighting cognitive decline should begin early and continue throughout life, but how?
No one really knows how mental activity slows brain decline, according to an editorial in the same issue of Neurology that carried the results from the Rush University study. "Can we do anything to slow down late-life cognitive decline?" the authors of the editorial ask. The answer they propose: "Read more books, and do more activities that keep your brain busy irrespective of your age."
More research is needed, they say, to figure out the best ways to buff up our cognitive "muscles," but until then they advise maintaining "a busy mind to keep dementia at bay."
Tom Valeo writes frequently about health matters. He can be reached at [email protected]