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Maintaining Your Mental Fitness

Most people are aware that physical fitness is an important part of remaining healthy and active as they age. But did you know that the physical exercise you do may also help keep your mind sharp, and that doing specific mental exercises may also delay the aging process and even prevent dementia and Alzheimer's?

According to Gary Small, M.D., director of UCLA's Center on Aging, "Genetics…accounts for only one-third of the risk for dementia or rapid brain aging. That means the other two-thirds is non-genetic and partially under an individual's control." So your mental health is largely up to you.

Dr. Small recommends focusing on four key areas to keep your brain in tip-top shape: diet, stress reduction, physical conditioning, and mental activity and memory training. Even young, healthy people can experience decreased mental functioning due to fatigue, stress, and in the case of women, hormonal fluctuations.

Just like your body, your mind needs regular activity to maintain its functioning. The National Institutes of Health recently funded a study called the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE. The ACTIVE study involved 2,802 adults aged 65 and older and assigned them randomly to four groups. Three of the groups took part in training that targeted a specific cognitive ability - memory, reasoning, or speed of processing. The fourth group received no cognitive training. Participants in the three training groups attended up to 10 sessions lasting 60 to 75 minutes each over a 5 to 6 week period. After the initial training period, 60 percent of the participants received a series of 75-minute "booster" sessions designed to maintain improvements gained from the initial sessions. The scientists tested the participants at the start of the study, after the training period was complete, and annually over five years. Immediately after the initial training period 87 percent of the speed training group, 74 percent of the reasoning group and 26 percent of the memory group showed improvement in the skills taught. After five years, individuals in each group continued to perform better on tests in their respective areas of training than did individuals in the control group.

Study co-author Sherry L. Willis, Ph.D., of Pennsylvania State University, states "The improvements seen after the training roughly counteract the degree of decline in cognitive performance that we would expect to see over a seven-to-14-year period among older people without dementia."

Here are some ways to stay mentally active and challenged:

  • If you're retired, find something to do! Take a part-time job, volunteer, or mentor. It's good to feel wanted and productive.

  • Get out there and get involved. Volunteer, take a class, join an activity group, or simply establish a weekly breakfast date with your best friends.

  • Meet new people. Join any of the groups previously mentioned or get involved with your church or synagogue.

  • Read. You don't have to read War and Peace cover to cover, but pick up a newspaper, subscribe to a magazine, check out Internet news sites and blogs that interest you.

  • Challenge your brain. Do crossword puzzles, play sudoku, and other mind games and puzzles.

  • Stimulate the creative side of your brain. Learn to play a musical instrument, take an art class or a photography class, or write poetry.

In addition to mental exercise, scientists have also been studying the possibility that physical fitness has a cognitive benefit. Scientists studying lab animals found that when the animals exercised, their nerve cells released chemicals called neurotrophic factors - proteins which buffer nerve cells against injury or illness, prompt them to grow and multiply, and strengthen each neuron's connection with other nerve cells.

Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California began studying mice in 1999 to learn more about the mental benefits of physical activity. He allowed one group of mice to run on a wheel as much as they liked, averaging 4 to 5 kilometers every night, while the other group was not given wheels and therefore had no access to physical activity. Gage and his associates found that the runner mice were able to find a hidden platform during a water maze exercise "significantly sooner than their less-fit counterparts." When the scientists dissected the mice brains, they found that the runner mice had approximately twice as many new brain neurons as the sedentary mice.

Scientists have also explored the possibility that physical exercise can treat neurological injuries, such as spinal cord damage. John McDonald, director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, believes that without the neurotrophic factors produced as a result of physical activity, the nervous system fails to establish connections between damaged neurons and grow new ones. In a recent study, 24 paralyzed individuals exercised with the help of a special bike three times a week while another 24 paralyzed individuals only stretched. After two years, 40 percent of the exercise group had regained some motor function, compared with only 4 percent of the stretchers.

A recent report published in The Annals of Internal Medicine announced the results of a study by the Group Health Cooperative of Seattle's Center for Health Studies. Lead author of the study Eric Larson found that older adults who exercised at least three times a week had a 30 to 40 percent lower risk of developing dementia as did seniors who exercise less often. Even seniors who already show some signs of dementia benefited from regular exercise. Larson believes that exercise may improve brain function by boosting blood flow to areas of the brain used for memory.

However, some scientists caution that more research is needed to determine whether exercise and decreased dementia rates really do have a cause-and-effect relationship or whether physical activity is simply higher among seniors who are mentally and socially active and have other positive lifestyle factors.

The results of these studies demonstrate that mental and physical fitness are important to maintaining mental agility as we age, but scientists agree that more research is necessary to determine exactly what seniors should be doing and how often they should do it. But they can all agree that doing something is better than nothing. So get out there and get fit - mentally and physically.



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March of Dimes
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