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Fitness kick for the brain can help memory, attention

August 28, 2008|By BOB POOR

Q: Your article on sarcopenia and the need for weight training for seniors stirred me to start exercising again. Now, I am hearing that we also need to practice "brain fitness." Can you enlighten us?

A: Glad you asked I need a little brain fitness myself. If you explore the Wikipedia Web site, brain fitness is described as the capacity for a person to meet the various cognitive demands of life. A major hypothesis is that improvement in cognitive abilities through brain exercise represents brain fitness, in an analogy with how physical exercise produces physical fitness. Brain fitness typically seeks to improve attention, memory, thinking and stress management.

According to a leading expert, neuropsychologist Dr. Paul Nussbaum, adjunct associate professor in neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, "When people first hear of the potential for 'strengthening' their brains, they become excited because they fear Alzheimer's." So, how can you strengthen your brain? Nussbaum cites five areas science suggests have the potential to slow or forestall the effects of aging.

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o Regular physical activity. Dancing, gardening, bicycling, hiking, walking, golfing, tennis, swimming - any activity that sustains an elevated heart rate - is recommended at least three times a week.

o Socialization. Studies show isolated individuals have a higher risk of dementia. Stay involved with friends and family. Consider volunteering in our community.

o Diet (I just knew we'd get to this one!). Don't overeat. Obesity predisposes people to dementia. Studies show benefits from the consumption of the "good" omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, walnuts and flaxseed; and from foods high in antioxidants, such as deep-colored fruits and vegetables.

o Spirituality. Studies in the emerging field of "neurotheology" have shown effective antidotes to chronic stress and anxiety exist in the regular observance of both formal religion and informal practices such as relaxation, meditation and tai chi.

o Mental stimulation. Traveling, learning a new language, playing musical instruments, or playing a board game all qualify. "It's all about the new and the complex," Nussbaum says. Cognition-challenged brains build up reserves of new connections." Once you are no longer challenged by Sudoku puzzles, continuing to solve them can be fun, but it is not necessarily brain-enhancing. There are many Web sites related to brain fitness. SharpBrains, www.sharpbrains.com, offers well-organized information including studies about memory, articles by experts, games to play, specific guidelines for evaluating brain-training software, links to other Web sites, and a free monthly e-newsletter.

So, there you have a quick look at "brain fitness." Happy mental exercising, y'all!

Hagerstown resident Robert A. Poor is a member of the Society of Senior Advisers and provides senior professional services for reverse mortgages and personal insurances. He also is a member of the Senior Referral Center of Hagerstown.Questions are welcomed at r.poor@myactv.net or by mail c/o The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741, ATTN: Robert A. Poor column.

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