Train your brain — away from the computer
My regular readers – both of you – know that I believe aging successfully is more a matter of choices and actions than genetic luck; what we do is more important than what we get. Staying physically active, eating healthfully and engaging in lifelong learning are essential to keeping our bodies and minds alive and well.
We know thriving as we age is a holistic process, but we still crave simple, specific prescriptions that guarantee results. Online brain training has recently emerged as one answer to this demand. Companies tout games backed by neuroscientific principles that promise improvements in processing speed, concentration and memory. Examples include Brain HQ by Posit Science and the more slickly marketed Lumosity which almost everyone has heard about.
But do they work? I cannot answer that question. My own limited experience with these websites is not enough to review or compare available programs. Be aware, though, that they are big business. Exercise reasonable skepticism and consider these opinions:
• Elizabeth Day, a consumer/journalist who tried Lumosity for a month wrote in The Guardian in April 2013 that while her scores improved on the games, she was unsure if those improvements go beyond the games themselves.
• A consensus opinion of 73 international psychologists, gerontologists and neuroscientists published in October 2014 said, “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. … exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline.”
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My educated opinion is that such games – if you like them – may offer some help as a limited part of a broader approach to brain fitness. Most of us, though, spend far too much time glued to one screen or another. We know too much screen time is harmful to children, and research is mounting that the harm goes beyond promoting a sedentary lifestyle.
A 2014 Psychology Today blog cites studies that show negative structural and functional brain changes in children who exhibit “Internet addiction” and discusses mounting research indicating more subtle damage with normal electronic device use. Little if any research exists on the effects of screen time on the aging brain but I am going to work to reduce my exposure.
Why not engage in other games and brain exercises that are based on neuroscientific principles, are not expensive and do not encourage sedentary habits?
Neurobics is one program I recommend. Lawrence Katz, who coined the term, and Manning Rubin published the first book on neurobics in 1998. The authors point out that otherwise healthy older people experience little, if any, net loss of brain cells and that most mental decline results from a reduced number and complexity of dendrites, our neural connectors. The book describes 83 exercises that can coax the brain to preserve and develop new connections and produce neurotrophins, which make cells more resistant to the effects of aging.
The underlying principles of neurobics are to break out of routines and to intentionally shake up our sensory input. Breaking out of routines can mean simply trying a new type of food or music or taking a different route to work. For sensory input, we rely heavily on vision – another possible downside to online brain training? – and Katz and Manning teach us to try novel ways of accomplishing the same old tasks. Some examples:
1. Blunt the sense you normally use for an ordinary task and force yourself to employ one or more of your underused senses: Get dressed for work with your eyes closed, eat a meal with your family in silence.
2. Combine senses in non-routine ways: Listen to a certain piece of music while smelling a particular fragrance.
3. Use the same sense but change the input: If you normally wake up to the smell of coffee brewing, try keeping a vial of an essential oil beside your bed and sniffing it when you wake up. Linking a new aroma with your morning routine activates new neural pathways.
4. Use your nondominant hand for routine tasks like brushing your teeth: Research has shown that forcing brain areas and connections to direct tasks in which they normally do not participate can result in a fast increase in circuits that process tactile information.
The point of these exercises, of course, is not to engage in novelty for its own sake, although it can be fun; rather, it is to create new neural connections and spur the production of our own brain nutrients – chemicals that we can legitimately describe as “natural” – to protect, improve and preserve our brains from the effects of aging.
Successful Aging appears in Body & More on the third Tuesday of the month. Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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