The Brain: Waste Not, Want Not

Mentally challenging tasks can keep you sharp as you age, experts say

SUNDAY, April 30, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- "Use it or lose it" has long been the battle cry of physical fitness experts.

But many scientists are now expanding upon the traditional concept of exercise, moving beyond big biceps and brawny backs to focus on perhaps the most important organ in the human body: the brain.

The brain deserves -- and needs -- the kind of respect and attention that befits its role as a remarkably versatile organ saddled with an endless list of housekeeping duties, mental fitness proponents point out.

They note that, 24/7, the brain is called upon to simultaneously regulate unconscious functions, such as breathing, body temperature and digestion; conscious functions, such as movement and talking; and so-called cognitive functions, such as thinking, learning, feeling and remembering.

To help the brain keep up this lifelong juggling act, researchers are increasingly coming to view a healthy brain as a "worked out" brain -- one that is regularly stimulated and challenged by rigorous mind-taxing tasks.

A lifestyle that includes such routine mental activities will increase alertness and agility of thought well into the golden years, while perhaps forestalling the onset of age-related dementia, according to experts.

"The more you do mentally stimulating activities -- such as crossword puzzles or playing chess -- the better it is," said Dr. Joe Verghese, an assistant professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Verghese recently co-authored a study that found that seniors who engage in a wide variety of mental pursuits while at leisure -- such as playing a musical instrument, reading and playing cards or board-games -- seem to dramatically lower their risk for developing dementia.

But he stressed that it's never too early to incorporate mental exercise into the daily planner. In fact, it's a habit that should be encouraged starting in childhood, experts say.

"If you haven't built a lifestyle that includes mentally stimulating activities in your 50s as a habit or a lifestyle, it's unlikely you will do so in your 60s," Verghese said.

The list of practical mind-probing options is long, including reading newspapers, listening to music, writing letters and taking community college or university classes. Even dancing fits the bill, Verghese said.

"Anything that lifts your mental gears a gear higher, and that includes physical activity," he noted.

Dr. Joseph T. Coyle, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, agrees that regular mental and physical activity is -- at minimum -- a benign means to improve the chances of staying healthier longer.

"Crossword puzzles are not bad for you, and they may actually help prevent the onset of dementia," he said. "So I would say get regular exercise -- like walking three or four times a week -- and find a hobby that you enjoy that's intellectually challenging."

However, he cautioned that a well-exercised brain is no hard-and-fast guarantee of longevity or a better quality of life.

"It's clear that there are Harvard professors that develop Alzheimer's disease, and there are people with third-grade educations that go on to live to 100," said Coyle. "So, on an individual basis, it's hard to predict. Nothing is absolutely protective."

Dr. Lawrence Whalley is the author of The Aging Brain, and a psychiatrist and professor of mental health with the School of Medicine at Scotland's University of Aberdeen. He agrees that brain health and dementia prevention are complex issues, and many inter-related lifestyle factors are at play.

"Being socially active, being an intellectually engaged individual, having recreational time, enjoying a good diet, lacking stress -- these are all things that tend to help in avoiding dementia," he said.

"Basically, whatever's good for your heart is good for your head," Whalley added. "Mortality of vascular disease in the United States was halved between 1965 and 1995, and this is one of the great public-health successes of the 20th century. And what people are looking for in dementia prevention is the same, because the factors that everyone knows predispose to heart disease also predispose to dementia.

"So, not smoking and eating a diet that's balanced and rich in antioxidants and doesn't lead to obesity works very well. And completing mentally challenging tasks should also help, so long as it's effortful, so long as you actually have to try better to complete the task."

More information

For more on aging and health, visit the National Institute on Aging.

SOURCES: Joe Verghese, M.D., assistant professor of neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City; Joseph T. Coyle, M.D, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, Boston; Lawrence Whalley, M.D., psychiatrist and professor of mental health, School of Medicine, University of Aberdeen, Scotland
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