Three Great Brain Exercises You May Have Overlooked

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There’s an erroneous belief that cognitive decline in our later years is inevitable. But these days, neurologists assure us that this is not the case. They note that even when brain imaging reveals changes that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, some seniors show no outward signs of memory or thinking problems. These seniors have built a robust “cognitive reserve”—extra brain capacity that allows them to, in a sense, “live around” the changes in the brain.

Since this research became widely known, many older adults have embraced brain training—games and computer programs designed to increase neural connections. These commercial products have received mixed reviews, but scientists say that it certainly can’t hurt to use them. And as we saw in the October/November 2017 issue of the Hand in Hand e-newsletter, a wide range of activities are beneficial. Even puzzles like the one in this issue of Hand in Hand provide a bit of a mental workout.

If your New Year’s resolutions include “get more brain exercise,” it’s good to know researchers are confirming the value of more and more popular activities. Here are three of the most recent activities to get a thumbs up:

Water exercise. We know that almost any activity that is good for our heart and muscles is also good for our brain. Studies show that an exercise program that includes aerobic and weight-bearing activities is the most effective. But it can be mighty cold this time of year, so we’re tempted to leave our walking shoes in the closet. What about water aerobics? Exercising in the pool gets our heart rate up, while it’s gentle on the joints. Water is much denser than air, so exercising in the pool is a good resistance exercise for building muscle. Our brains get a workout, too, as we follow the instructor’s commands. Water aerobics protects against head injuries by lowering our fall risk. And socializing with others in your class is a brain-friendly pastime as well.

Yoga. Yoga has long been known to improve flexibility and reduce stress. And last year, a research team from UCLA showed that taking part in yoga can be just as beneficial as brain games and other memory enhancement exercises in minimizing the memory changes that worry many seniors. Using memory tests and brain imaging (MRI), the researchers found that yoga and brain games offered similar benefits in improving verbal memory, and yoga was the winner when it came to visual-spatial memory skills and fighting anxiety and depression. The research team attributed the benefits to yoga’s ability to “reduce stress and inflammation, improve mood and resilience, and enhance production of brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor, a protein that stimulates connections between neurons and kick-starts telomerase activity, a process that replaces lost or damaged genetic material.”

Video games. As often as we tell the grandkids to put down the joystick and go outside to play, we might pick it up a little more ourselves! The AARP recently noted that almost half of all older adults take part in video games or online gaming, both for fun and in hopes of enhancing their mental sharpness. Studies show that video games can give our brain a good workout as we solve puzzles, make split-second spatial decisions, and use our short-term and long-term memory. And video games are bringing the generations together; the AARP says that seniors often get recommendations from their kids and grandkids and game together. Active game systems—“exergames”—have been found to provide good light-to-moderate exercise for seniors. Even the Pokémon Go craze has been credited with luring gamers of every age out for some exercise.

Remember: Some physical exercises may not be suitable for people with arthritis, osteoporosis, balance problems or certain other health conditions, so talk to your doctor before making changes to your fitness program.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.