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Brain exercises can cut years off the mental age of the over-60s

Brain exercises can cut years off the mental age of the over-60s, improving memory and delaying decline, the British Association science festival was told yesterday. Cognitive exercises and mental stimulation — such as crossword puzzles can keep the brain up to 14 years younger, Ian Robertson, of Trinity College Dublin, said. “The brain is plastic, shaped by what we do,” he said. “We are all getting healthier and living longer, but the biggest threat as the population ages is to the function of the brain.”

Over-60s who took part in a four-month programme of aerobic exercise — enough to make them breathe harder, and their heart to beat faster — showed improvements in mental abilities. The benefits were especially marked in the frontal lobes of the brain, which are involved in the ability to organise, make decisions, show initiative, have a sense of humour, pay attention and remember things. Exercise works by generating a chemical that encourages the growth of new brain cells and new brain connections; by increasing serotonin levels, which control mood; and by causing new blood vessels to grow to nourish the brain. “For the over-50s, exercise is a sort of wonder-drug that makes you more mentally agile, less forgetful and delays the loss of sharpness,” Professor Robertson said. A good diet is also important, with foods high in saturated fats speeding mental decline. Stress can also be damaging if it is severe and prolonged.

Professor Roberton, whose new book is entitled Stay Sharp, said that brain exercises were a useful way of maintaining memory, the first part of the brain to show its decline. The idea is to shake the brain out of lazy habits and return it to the way it was in youth. “One of the reasons our memories let us down as we get older is that we don’t attack the information with the same brain vigour as when we were young,” he said. This has been observed in brain-scanning experiments. When a group of young people were given a list of words to memorise, their brains showed a healthy surge of activity in the left side of the frontal lobe, as well as in the main memory centre in the hippocampus. But, when 70-year-olds were given the same task, they did not switch on the left frontal lobe nearly as much, and this is probably why they did not remember as well.

But older people can reactivate this type of learning by “attacking” the memory task more systematically, a process the cognitive psychologist Fergus Craik, of the University of Toronto, calls “depth of encoding”. The basic principle is to add extra mental processing to the memory task to activate the frontal lobes. This training, combined with activities that keep the brain working, can have remarkable results. Professor Robertson cited a study of 3,000 people aged between 65 and 94, who used memory strategies, were trained in problem-solving, or who speeded up their reactions with a computer game.

When compared with a control group who did none of these things, the groups who were trained had an increase in brain function roughly equal to the decline expected in 7 to 14 years of ageing. “The training, in other words, took on average a decade off the cognitive age of these volunteers,” Professor Robertson said. “As the population ages, people are going to have to stay mentally active longer. In the future we are going to have to maintain our brains just as much as our bodies.”

Practice memorizing a list by associating each item with an image. This activates more circuits in the brain, increasing memory power. Imagine going on a familiar walk and associating each item on the list with a landmark on the walk. You could imagine leaving each item at a different point — a bottle of milk at the postbox, a loaf at a neighbor’s door Chunk things that are difficult to remember into more digestible bits. Long lists of digits, such as telephone numbers, are easier to remember in groups of three. Doing this improves both memory and attention. When reading a newspaper, construct a mental précis first by reading the headline and skimming the story quickly for facts. What it is about? Who are the protagonists? Form a mental picture of the story, and then read it properly. The pre-prepared structure will improve how much is remembered.

Attention is the royal road to success, Professor Robertson said. “We can drive to work and not remember a single thing about the journey, because the attention system of the frontal lobes is turned off.” To prevent this, learn to pause and think. Ask questions: Where am I? What am I doing? The aim is to activate the attention systems and exercise the brain. Play games that need high mental activity — crosswords, or computer games. By gradually stretching mental abilities, games like these can slow the brain’s decline.


Date: 2015-12-24; view: 962

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