Flexing mental muscles keeps aging brain healthy

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2014 - 11:47 PM

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Ken Lehmann is taking his Alzheimer’s diagnosis very seriously: He’s making a game of it.

Three and a half years ago, the retired furniture executive from Edina learned he was in the early stages of the disease. Since then, the 76-year-old has been following his doctor’s advice — by playing brain games on his iPad.

“Knock on wood, I haven’t regressed as rapidly as some of my friends,” Lehmann said.

The games, which promise to sharpen thinking skills and fight memory loss, are surging in popularity as millions of Americans download the mental workouts. And while scientists and doctors have long debated the value of “brain fitness,” many have recommended that older adults work to keep their minds alert, through everyday social interaction or structured gaming.

Now, new research supports the theory that exercising the mind could slow the onset of dementia and increase mental dexterity.

In the largest and longest study of its kind, older adults who completed a series of brain-training exercises maintained their cognitive skills a decade later, while those who received no brain training did not.

“Our findings suggest that if you want to keep your mind stronger as you get older, you can’t become a couch potato,” said George Rebok, professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

Rise of brain workouts

For years, puzzles were purported to keep the brain nimble. First it was crossword puzzles. Then Sudoku. Now it’s a new generation of apps — such as BrainHQ, Fit Brains Trainer and Lumosity — that claim to target and train specific parts of the brain.

The driving force behind many of these games is this relatively new understanding: Our brains remain malleable until very late in life.

The concept, called neuroplasticity, means that although we can’t make new nerve cells in our brains, we can make new connections between those cells, explained Dr. David Knopman, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic.

“The idea is that if you can make those new connections, then you could learn to learn better,” he said.

The more connections the better, added Terry Barclay, the director of neuropsychology for HealthPartners. “The denser your web of connections, the more it protects against insults and injuries that can happen from aging or from something like Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

At her age, Claire Fromme, 26, isn’t concerned about dementia. Still, she downloaded a Lumosity app for her iPhone because she frequently misplaces her keys.

One of the games briefly flashes an image of an open suitcase on screen, displaying the suitcase’s contents. The object is to recall where the items were placed, then repack the suitcase the way it was originally packed. While the game sounds simple, Fromme said it has helped her.

Recently, when she couldn’t find her keys, she tried to picture where she had last seen them. “I could see where they were,” she said. “They were on a shelf in my closet where I throw most stuff.”

Gary Becker, 68, swears by BrainHQ, which he plays every day on his computer.

After undergoing brain surgery a few years ago, the St. Louis Park man noticed he was having trouble focusing and he often lost his bearings if he turned a corner quickly. In one online game he plays, he must continually try to reorient himself on a digital map. “I can say this has been extremely beneficial,” Becker said.

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