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Regular Exercise Works Best for Our Brains

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:13am
The LA Times Health section featured an article by Greg Miller on Friday which summed up current research on keeping our brains healthy and fit throughout our lives. According to the article, a panel of experts assembled by the National Institutes of Health earlier this year reviewed the scientific literature on cognitive aging. They concluded that regular, consistent mental workouts, physical exercise, social interactions, and attention to cardiovascular health are critical to keeping mental edge as we get older. The regular and consistent part turns out to be extremely important. We already know that quick fixes don't work with exercise or diet. Now it's clear that regular workouts for our brains are also important. Marilyn Albert, a cognitive neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins University summed it up:

"The fab four. . . are physical activity, mental activity, social engagement and cardiovascular health." And researchers say, there's very little difference between men and women in the cognitive aging arena.

Denise Park, another respected researcher in aging and cognition from the University of Illinois adds that it is very important to learn new things with new challenges instead of getting stuck in the same old rut. If you already play the flute, take up a language. If you love cooking, try gardening, too, etc. The message: stay active, physically and mentally, and continue to challenge yourself to stay fit.

Lately in several articles about keeping the brain fit as we age, Dr. Timothy Salthouse has been quoted as the contrarian, based on the large study called A.C.T.I.V.E, that he led. He concluded that mental training is not particularly helpful.

I think it's very important to look at the A.C.T.I.V.E research design to be able to understand why Dr. Salthouse is as negative as he is, at least in the soundbites from newspaper articles. The study lasted for 24 months and tested specific intervals of training in a group of men and women between the ages of 65 and 94. Three of the four groups received ten sessions stretched over several weeks of 60-75 minutes each of training on a particular cognitive skill like reasoning, memory, or processing speed. Then 11 months later, they got three more hours of training (called booster sessions).

The groups were tested three times: after the first set of sessions, after the Booster, and then 24 months after the first sessions. They found a decline in each of the skills at the second and third test points.

In other words, Salthouse et al. found that quick fixes don't work. Why does this surprise anyone? If I don't speak French for a year or two (even with three hours of study in between), my French is less than it used to be. If I speak and study regularly and consistently, I notice that my fluency improves dramatically. Same thing with piano playing, with Sudoku, bridge, and practically any other pursuit that involves my brain that I can think of. Regular practice makes me better and faster at the task at hand. If I don't practice, I slow down. Sounds remarkably like what happens when I don't cycle or swim for a few weeks. I have to work on retraining my muscles and my breathing.
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