Games geared toward working out the brain can improve cognitive functioning from middle age on. Most of us now know that we can keep our gray matter in peak form and even help stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s through mental exercises.
But change doesn’t come easy. Whether we are working on our memory or trying to meditate, brain-training exercises require a high level of mental focus to pay off in the end.
“It’s not easy to drive the brain’s connectivity,” said Michael Merzenich, an emeritus professor at UC San Francisco and a leading researcher in neuroplasticity. “You have to be engaged. I go nowhere if I’m not really paying attention to what I’m doing.”
The concept of retraining the brain as we age revolves around neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to grow and change by creating new neural connections. As we slowly master a new activity or exercise, the brain remembers each step, and neurotransmitters that carry that information through our brains forge new pathways. This ability is the basis for the idea that we can control whether our brains are on the up-slope or down-slope as we age.
While it’s often thought that age-related cognitive decline begins after we’ve hit middle age, researchers say it can start as early as 30. And the older we get, the more likely our brains are to succumb not just to the physical decline of age but also to the lack of external stimuli, since engaging in learning new information becomes less and less likely.
Researchers have looked closely at exactly what kind of mental games and exercises are necessary to combat the slow decline.
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2006, researchers focused on three major cognitive areas that are believed to do the most damage to “instrumental activities of daily living” once they start deteriorating — memory, reasoning and speed of processing.
The researchers provided 10 brain-training sessions, each 60 to 75 minutes long, to nearly 3,000 participants over the age of 65. The training included basic mnemonic strategies for remembering lists or written passages, finding patterns in groups of letters and dividing attention between several tasks at once. Over the next five years, they periodically provided follow-up training to randomly selected subgroups. The goal was to track what kind of long-term impact, if any, this kind of cognitive training would have.
In all three areas, the researchers found that participants showed improvement immediately after starting training. Over the course of five years, those who received supplemental training periodically fared better than those who did not. They concluded that this cognitive improvement could indeed translate into performing daily tasks like remembering grocery lists, preparing a meal and understanding information on medication labels more easily.
In addition to these hands-on training tools, many researchers have theorized that cognitive training can take place without ever looking at a computer screen or a book — in fact, it can be done using only the mind.
To test this theory, researcher Antoine Lutz observed the brain activity of eight Buddhist monks during a meditation in which they concentrated on the idea of loving-kindness and compassion. He found that before, during and after meditating, the monks had higher gamma activity than novice meditation practitioners. Gamma activity has been associated with better memory and increased ability to process information — all concerns associated with aging.
Lutz also discovered that the monks — all of whom had clocked at least 10,000 hours of meditation practice — had developed neural connections that spanned greater distances in the brain than is typical, meaning that regions of the brain that don’t usually connect were communicating. By focusing the mind in a deliberate way, Lutz concluded, the brain can physically change. The results of the study were published in 2004 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
For those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to participate in these studies, or to have devoted 10,000 hours to meditation, there is still hope. In fact, there are a number of competing software programs designed to replicate some of these exercises — as well as some from the JAMA study — at home.
At the forefront of making brain training accessible to the public is Posit Science, a company founded in 2005 by Merzenich. The company offers three different training packages to help with auditory and visual processing, as well as driving skills to reduce car accidents.
“The goal is to drive the brain in a variety of complicated ways, so that it’s operating more efficiently, rapidly and accurately,” Merzenich said.
In the book “Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain,” author Patt Lind-Kyle builds off Lutz’s research by outlining ways to focus the mind in everyday activity. She advocates four main steps to harness the mind deliberately: intention, including focusing on goals to accomplish; attention, or conscientiously processing outside stimuli; receptivity, or letting your mind accept whatever it encounters; and awareness — simply being mindful of everyday moments.
Merzenich speculates that programs soon will be developed to maintain the effects of brain training and that once optimal cognitive functioning has been achieved, it will require only short periods of maintenance to sustain the effects.
Once that’s happened, and once these exercises find their way into the mainstream, he said, “There is a tremendous prospect for really helping older people.”