Ageing With Attitude: Get your brain in gear

Margaret Jennings looks at the latest research on how to keep the grey matter in good nick and finds it’s not just about juggling oranges

Ageing With Attitude: Get your brain in gear

HOPING to become a ‘brain box’ by getting a brain training game in your Christmas box? You might just as well opt for an orange in your stocking from Santa — make that three — if you want to fight the fear of memory loss as you age.

While brain training games do little harm, except to your pocket, your precious grey matter would be equally challenged if you juggled three oranges for five minutes daily — proven to improve visual and motor activity when practised for eight weeks. And you don’t even have to get good at it!

That’s the advice of Billy O’Connor, professor of physiology, at the Graduate Entry Medical School, at the University of Limerick, who has a particular interest in the brain and blogs regularly about the subject. To date, up to 100 small studies have examined the benefits of brain training but only a handful have tested if the benefits persist and transfer over to real life.

The latest results released last month, from the largest study to date of an online brain training package are encouraging — almost 7,000 adults aged over 50, and carried out by researchers at King’s College London.

They concluded that after six months the brain-training package could not only improve memory and reasoning skills, but also how well older people could carry out everyday tasks. However, as in all previous research, follow-up studies are needed to confirm that brain training can have some actual long-lasting benefits.

“It’s important to understand that while computerised brain-training games seem like a brand new idea to prevent age-related memory decline, they are all based on clear evidence that living in an enriched environment with lots of mental stimulation produces positive brain changes,” says O’Connor.

For example, several studies on ageing have already demonstrated that exercise and socialisation in later life, have positive effects on cognition, and both of these are as easy as taking a walk and calling a friend — or juggling those oranges.

“So why fork out then for expensive brain-training games, which are essentially solitary activities that cost money to buy, sit on your butt, and stare at a screen and exercise little more than your index finger, as it pushes the button or the mouse?” he asks.

Going on proven research about positive ageing, it might be better to pay membership to a bridge or whist club where our brains get challenged in a social environment. “The problem as it stands now is that the typical consumer of brain-training programs is part of “the worried well,” a group of individuals with normal brains but with significant concerns about cognitive decline that comes with normal ageing,” says O’Connor.

“In this case if you do try commercially-sold brain games, be forewarned that you may not see big improvements in your scores if you are already cognitively fit — a phenomenon referred to as the ceiling effect — or you may give up, due to frustration or boredom.

“And remember that despite their promises, no computerised brain-training program has yet been proven to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or even to make brain cells — neurons — any younger at a biological level. Improving your computer-determined ‘brain age’ to that of a 29-year- old may involve a mental workout, but may no more reduce your risk for future memory loss, as say learning to hit a golf swing like Rory McIlroy,” he says.

Scientists know that children’s learning brains are “turned on” by default but as we get older our brains only turn on in response to fairly intensive stimuli. In this way brain-training exercises can grow new neurons and neuroplasticity shows that the learning and practice of a behaviour can cause brain circuits to grow or change by adding a tiny fraction of the brain’s neural circuitry and eliminating old ones.

I“Yes this is a fact and it is good news for those willing to put in the effort,” says Billy. And he predicts that in the future computerised brain-training may eventually evolve into “a form of cyber- vaccine against age-related memory loss, in which socially-networked multiplayer training sessions will keep our brains healthy”.

But if you want cheaper brain benefits the old-fashioned way then he advises:

- Managing stress in a healthy way: focus on what you love doing.

- Taking more physical and mental exercise: get interested in life and become passionate about something.

- Having a healthy diet: eat fruits and vegetables daily.And his final word of advice? “For an inexpensive and powerful workout for your brain - wear your wrist watch upside down!” So perhaps a watch from Santa, if you don’t have one.

Follow Professor O’Connor’s Inside-the-Brain website and Facebook to access his blog posts on this and related topics.

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