Why Brain Fitness Training Works to Combat Cognitive Decline

§ October 22nd, 2008 § Filed under brain research § No Comments

This information is adapted from our sister site — www.mindsparke.com, but it belongs here, too.

Brain Fitness Training And Aging

Alzheimers Brain Plaques And Tangles

Alzheimer's Brain Plaques And Tangles

A growing body of data indicates that various activities and strategies can help prevent or mitigate the adverse effects of aging on brain function. Such activities and strategies include regular physical exercise, diet, social interaction, and mental exercise.

Dr. David Snowdon’s study of Roman Catholic nuns provides a dramatic example of the benefits of mental stimulation. Snowdon’s study discovered that about one third of the nuns found at autopsy to have the characteristic plaques and brain tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease had shown no symptoms of the disease while still alive and had scored normally on mental and physical tests. Information about the nun’s daily routines supports the hypothesis that the symptoms of Alzheimer’s didn’t manifest themselves in these nuns because they had remained more mentally active than their colleagues.

Mental decline over the course of our lives has two primary causes: Normal aging and the lack of appropriate, focused, mental stimulation. In middle to later life many of us tend not to involve ourselves in the kinds of systematically demanding mental tasks that we did when we were younger; such lifestyles tend not to support continued, robust brain function. We can do something to change this situation by engaging in appropriate brain fitness training.

How and Why Does Brain Training Help?

Nucleus Basalis
Nucleus Basalis

The area of the brain known as the nucleus basalis works by releasing acetylcholine while a person performs tasks that require focus and attention. The release of acetylcholine is the trigger that tells the brain to pay attention; it helps the brain “fix” memories as they form. (Even mild cognitive impairment is associated with imperceptibly low levels of acetylcholine in the nucleus basalis.)

When we’re focused on a mental activity that also challenges and rewards us, acetylcholine works together with dopamine (the ‘happy’ chemical) to stimulate changes in the brain’s function and structure — this is the chemical basis of brain plasticity.

Cognitive training for mature adults should therefore consist of demanding exercises that require focused attention and engage the participant in a rewarding activity (to maintain attention and stimulate the release of dopamine). The exercises should train those mental processes that are in decline so that the changes in brain structure are purposeful and useful. Since aging takes a toll on memory, attention, mental speed and agility, and overall mental capacity (it’s easier to ‘overload’), effective brain-training exercises should ideally strengthen aural and visual processing speed and accuracy, multi-tasking ability, right- and left-brain interaction, and working-memory. Further, to remain effective, the training needs to deliver increasingly difficult exercises as our thinking improves.

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