Mental exercise is the act of performing a mentally stimulating task that is considered beneficial to warding off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. This practice is accepted by many cultures worldwide. Researchers have done studies finding that mental exercise, like reading and doing a puzzle, does not prevent Alzheimer’s, but rather delays the onset of the disease.
The term brain fitness reflects a hypothesis that cognitive abilities can be maintained or improved by exercising the brain, in analogy to the way physical fitness is improved by exercising the body. Although there is strong evidence that aspects of brain structure remain plastic throughout life, and that high levels of mental activity are associated with reduced risks of age-related dementia, scientific support for the concept of "brain fitness" is limited. The term is virtually never used in the scientific literature, but is commonly used in the context of self-help books and commercial products. It first came into play in the 1980s, and appeared in the titles of self-help books in 1989 and 1990.
Like physical fitness, brain fitness can be improved by various challenging activities such as playing chess or bridge, dancing regularly, practicing yoga and tai chi and also by engaging in more structured computer based workouts. Some research shows that brain stimulation can help prevent age-related cognitive decline, reverse behavioral assessment declines in dementia and Alzheimer’s and can also improve normally functioning minds. In experiments, comparing some computer based brain boosting exercises to other computer based activities, brain exercises were found to improve attention and memory in people over age 60. Other studies have evaluated other brain boosting exercises and not found improvements. A study of 67 schoolchildren aged 10 compared 7 week Nintendo brain training to engaging in pen and paper puzzles. The study found that the brain training group suffered a 17 per cent decrease in memory tests after the seven week course, while the pen and paper group saw an increase of 33 per cent. Some experts are skeptical with regard to the real value of particular commercial brain boosting products. For example, a panel of experts gathered by Which? Magazine have concluded that ‘Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training’ for the Nintendo DS will not enhance brainpower at all. However, other researchers underline the growing amount of studies indicating that some commercial brain training products have shown measurable results in improving various cognitive skills.
Consistent mental challenge by novel stimuli increases production and interconnectivity of neurons and nerve growth factor, as well as prevents loss of connections and cell death. The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) nationwide (America) clinical trial is so far the nation's largest study of cognitive training. Researchers found that improvements in cognitive ability roughly counteract the degree of long-term cognitive decline typical among older people without dementia. The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, showed significant percentages of the 2,802 participants age 65 and older who trained for five weeks for about 2½ hours per week improved their memory, reasoning and information-processing speed.
Joe Verghese, M.D. found that people with higher activity score had lower risks of Alzheimer's and dementia. An open question in the field is whether people who will later develop Alzheimer's are naturally less active, or whether intervening to raise an activity score will delay or prevent Alzheimer's. If the latter hypothesis were true, people could lower their dementia risk by 7% simply by adding one activity per week (such as doing a crossword puzzle or playing a board game) to their schedule. According to the findings of that same study, subjects who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a 47% lower risk of dementia than subjects who did a crossword puzzle just once a week. (Verghese, J; et al. (2003). "Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly". The New England Journal of Medicine 348 (25): 2508–16.)
Effects on Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia
Mental exercise has been very commonly associated with affecting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. A study done in 2006 by the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) was the first randomized, controlled trial demonstrating beneficial and enduring effects of concise mental training in the elderly. This study showed that the average senior who received cognitive training had fewer declines in specific mental skills than seniors who did not receive any kind of training. The study concluded that the benefits gained by the training were able to roughly counteract the regression in mental performance that is expected in the elderly. Another 2006 study, led by Michael Valenzuela of the University of New South Wales in Australia, found that being mentally active diminishes the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by nearly 50% by constructing and maintaining a reserve of cognitive stimulation. This reserve of cognitive stimulation is commonly referred to as either brain reserve or cognitive reserve. Similarly, the cognitive reserve hypothesis states that it is possible to develop the brain’s resistance to neuronal damage and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. A prior study led by Valenzuela found that after mentally exercising healthy people for five weeks, participants had additional brain chemistry markers in the opposite direction than the markers in Alzheimer’s patients. A study done in 2007 gave tests to approximately 700 elderly people. The results found that no matter which cognitive level the person began at, the people who stimulated their brain more frequently experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline than others. In addition, recent research by Robert Wilson, also of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, has added more evidence to these older studies. This study encompasses nearly 1200 individuals over the course of almost twelve years. Also, this study agrees with older studies in finding that mental activity may slow the normal declines in memory and thinking that the elderly encounter. However, the new evidence also states that when dementia does hit, its effects attack harder and faster in those who have stimulated the brain more frequently than others. This creates a type of “trade-off” that each person must decide which course of action is best for him or her. This trade-off is that mental exercise may delay the onset of dementia and give an individual more time of capability and individuality, but the price of these advantages will be less time in the hindered and reliant state that coincides with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, the study found specifically those who read, played games, and went to museums more frequently were less likely to experience mental decline over the course of several years.
Examples of Mentally Stimulating Activities
Although some common examples of mental exercise are doing crossword puzzles and playing chess, stimulation of the brain can occur in a wide variety of ways. Using one’s memory is a form of mental exercise. Attempting to memorize a grocery list before someone goes to the store is easy and beneficial for the brain. A simple way to arouse the brain is by using the opposite, or non-dominant, hand. For tasks such as eating, brushing teeth, dialing the phone, using an iPod, and using the mouse on a computer, most people instinctively use their dominant hand even though using the non-dominant hand would be helpful. Incorporating as many of the five senses as possible into everyday activities can stimulate the brain. Getting dressed with the eyes closed, listening to music while smelling the flowers and the surrounding nature, and watching clouds while playing with modeling clay, are all simple ways to exercise the mind by using many senses at once. Ridding oneself of habits and routines will allow mental stimulation to occur. Driving a different route to work or school on a daily basis are good examples of breaking a comfortable habit. Even shopping at varying pharmacies and grocery stores can help stimulate the brain by breaking habits. Our ancestors are an example of how traveling is another way to exercise the mind. The ancient Homo sapiens were adventurous and were constantly on the move. This active lifestyle led to more developed survival skills and a significant amount of brain stimulation that the homebound Neanderthals of the same time did not have, which led to their eventual extinction. Even being in an intellectually enriching environment can help compensate for some forms of brain damage. A study done by Jefferson Medical College gave water laced with lead to two groups of rats. One group was in a stimulating environment while the other group was isolated. While lead can potentially cause brain damage, the rats in the stimulating environment showed a better capability to learn than the isolated group. The brain is constantly changing for people of all ages and learning can and should be a continual process. Reading, learning a new language, and playing a musical instrument are all tremendous ways to stimulate the brain. Playing Scrabble and Sudoku are both ways to enhance cognitive ability as well. A study done by Princeton University researchers shows that even playing Bingo is an example of mental exercise for the elderly. On the contrary, watching television sends the brain into a neutral state and is void of thinking; therefore avoiding television is advised for someone wishing to have mental stimulation. Cognitive exercise must occur so that the brain can continue to grow.
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