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In most of my past blogs, I have talked about maintaining optimal physical health – staying physically fit, keeping all chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues and such at bay. Also, I have talked about developing, building and maintaining lean mass, strength, balance and flexibility.

But, what about the brain? How to keep brain in top shape as we age, while keeping Alzheimer disease and dementia far away from ourselves? What is in our control that we can do?

After all, living to 120 (or to whatever your target is), without full cognitive faculties won’t be much fun.

Researching this topic, I found that National Institute of Health (NIH), National Institute of Aging, has a very good chapter “The Changing Brain in Healthy Aging” in their publication “Alzheimer’s Disease: Unraveling the Mystery”. The following is excerpt from that chapter.

As a person gets older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain:

  • Certain parts of the brain shrink, especially, the prefrontal cortex (an area at the front of the frontal lobe) and the hippocampus. Both areas are important to learning, memory, planning, and other complex mental activities.
  • ­Changes in neurons and neurotransmitters affect communication between neurons. In certain brain regions, communication between neurons can be reduced because white matter (myelin covered axons) is degraded or lost.
  • ­Changes in the brain’s blood vessels occur. Blood flow can be reduced because arteries narrow and less growth of new capillaries occurs.
  • ­In some people, structures called plaques and tangles develop outside of and inside neurons, respectively, although in much smaller amounts than in Alzheimer Disease
  • ­Damage by free radicals increases – free radicals are a kind of molecule that reacts easily with other molecules­
  • Inflammation increases  – inflammation is the complex process that occurs when the body responds to an injury, disease, or abnormal situation.

What effects does aging have on mental function in healthy older people?

Some people may notice a modest decline in their ability to learn new things and retrieve information, such as remembering names. ­They may perform worse on complex tasks of attention, learning, and memory than would a younger person.

However, if given enough time to perform the task, the scores of healthy people in their 70s and 80s are often similar to those of young adults. In fact, as they age, adults often improve in other cognitive areas, such as vocabulary and other forms of verbal knowledge.

It also appears that additional brain regions can be activated in older adults during cognitive tasks, such as taking a memory test. Researchers do not fully understand why this happens, but one idea is that the brain engages mechanisms to compensate for difficulties that certain regions may be having.

For example, the brain may recruit alternate brain networks in order to perform a task. Th­ese findings have led many scientists to believe that major declines in mental abilities are not inevitable as people age. Growing evidence of the adaptive (what scientists call “plastic”) capabilities of the older brain provide hope that people may be able to do things to sustain good brain function as they age. A variety of interacting factors, such as lifestyle, overall health, environment, and genetics also may play a role.

Another question that scientists are asking is why some people remain cognitively healthy as they get older while others develop cognitive impairment or dementia. Th­e concept of “cognitive reserve” may provide some insights.

Cognitive reserve refers to the brain’s ability to operate effectively even when some function is disrupted. It also refers to the amount of damage that the brain can sustain before changes in cognition are evident. People vary in the cognitive reserve they have, and this variability may be because of differences in genetics, education, occupation, lifestyle, leisure activities, or other life experiences.

Th­ese factors could provide a certain amount of tolerance and ability to adapt to change and damage that occurs during aging. At some point, depending on a person’s cognitive reserve and unique mix of genetics, environment, and life experiences, the balance may tip in favor of a disease process that will ultimately lead to dementia.

For another person, with a different reserve and a different mix of genetics, environment, and life experiences, the balance may result in no apparent decline in cognitive function with age.

Scientists are increasingly interested in the influence of all these factors on brain health, and studies are revealing some clues about actions people can take that may help preserve healthy brain aging. Fortunately, these actions also benefit a person’s overall health. Th­ey include:

  1. ­Controlling risk factors for chronic disease, such as heart disease and diabetes (for example, keeping blood cholesterol and blood pressure at healthy levels and maintaining a healthy weight) ­
  2. Enjoying regular exercise and physical activity ­
  3. Eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of vegetables and fruits
  4. ­Engaging in intellectually stimulating activities, and
  5. Maintaining close social ties with family, friends, and community

So, actions 1, 2 and 3 suggested by NIH NIA are the same as for keeping physical body fit and in good order. That is a good news!

But there are also additional actions 4 and 5 one can take, that are good to keep brain fit and in good order.

Piano Lessons at 60:

To increase my intellectually stimulating activities, as I was turning 60, I decided to start taking piano lessons. I have been very left brain focused on my intellectual pursuits – STEM or Science Technology, Engineering and Math education. So, I figured, it is high time I did something to develop my underused right brain. And, there is a lot of evidence in research of the benefits of learning music on the brain.

For the last six months, I have been finding piano lessons very pleasurable and at the same time very intellectually and physically demanding. One half-hour lesson a week and daily practice of half hour to an hour, is what it takes for me learn and get comfortable with a piano piece my teacher introduces in the lesson. Initially it was just one piece from the “techniques book”, for the last few weeks, there is an additional piece from a popular “songs book”. All this piano playing got be doing something good for my brain, since week after week, it seems that I am learning with my brain and in my muscles new stuff.

How my sons got me playing video games:

Until now, I have completely resisted playing video games.

For Christmas, our twin sons, Daniel and Justin, gave us a present of family membership to Lumosity. Lumosity exploits research to-date in neuroplasticity. Research has found that certain types of activities may impact the brain more than others. It’s believed that as an activity is repeated, the brain tends to fall back on the same set of existing neural pathways. To continue changing, the brain must be exposed to novel, adaptive experiences that challenge it to work in new ways.

Drawing on this idea, Lumosity is designed to give each person a set of exercises that challenge their cognitive abilities.

Lumosity “games” are based on a combination of common neuropsychological and cognitive tasks, many of which have been used in research for decades, and new tasks designed by an in-house science team. Working with experienced game designers, Lumosity neuroscientists have transformed these tasks into over 40 challenging, adaptive games.

Lumosity’s game-based training program is designed to expose your brain to gradually increasing levels of challenges, adapting game difficulty to your individual ability level. As your scores increase, you may encounter new or more difficult games. Modeled from the concept of a physical personal trainer, Lumosity pushes you to operate at the limits of your abilities and stay challenged.

They also report measures of your performance, so you can see how you are improving in speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving and how you compare with others in your age bracket. A metric called LPI is a consolidated metric of these five factors. Also, you can use a test called Baseline Test to see how the scores translate to other situations you don’t play in the games.

I have been playing these games for two weeks now. It is definitely fascinating, how various skills of speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving improving. With this rate of progress, who knows, I may get good enough to play some video games against Justin and Daniel!

What are your thoughts on this subject of keeping brain fit and in optimal shape?

What strategies or techniques do you use to keep you brain fit?

Please leave a comment in the blog; I would love to hear from you.