May 27, 2011

Warding off dementia: brain exercises that work!

Exercise tops the list of recommendations for dealing with many health issues -- aging, Parkinson's, diabetes, depression, etc.  So it's no surprise that exercise in general and brain exercises in particular are seen as crucial in dealing with the cognitive impairment that comes with age and with the more serious issue of dementia.

Many studies have underscored the benefits of exercise in general.  Last month, we discussed one of the more recent findings:

What I want to focus on here is the "use-it-or-lose-it" exercises that work for the brain.  Despite a century of being told it's impossible, a mounting body of evidence suggests that the brain has more plasticity than previously thought and we can use exercise to create new brain cells!

You've heard the usual recommendations for mental fitness -- crossword puzzles, Sudoku, chess. These fun "mind games" are a good start, but the latest studies show that workouts pushing us beyond our normal patterns are MORE stimulating to the brain.  Here are some proven brain-challenging workouts:

 1.  Use your non-dominant hand.
A simple way to arouse the brain is by using the opposite, or non-dominant, hand. For tasks such as eating, brushing teeth, dialing the phone, navigating an iPod or using the computer mouse, most people instinctively use their dominant hand. Try your OTHER hand; challenge your brain!
2. Use more than one of the five senses.
Incorporating as many of the five senses as possible into everyday activities -- like getting dressed with your eyes closed, for example (just don't fall!) -- can stimulate the brain.  Studies have shown (I've tried this one) that seniors get a good brain workout by learning to juggle bean bags, a skill that involves hand-eye coordination.  Using different-textured bean bags adds another dimension.

3. Any challenging coordination exercise can be particularly helpful.
I've mentioned before that I've been using (not often enough) an exercise DVD that features seemingly simple exercises you can do sitting down. For me, the difficult ones involve trying to do two or three different body movements at the same time, like trying to perform one movement pattern with the right hand while the left hand does something different. Then add marching in place while seated... and you've lost me completely!

I'm pretty faithful about doing my BIG exercises for Parkinson's and other physical exercises that aren't mentally challenging. But I've been neglecting the simple seated coordination exercises because they are hard for me to do. I need to pay attention to my own advice!

Here's the link to the DVD that has a good collection of these coordination exercises:

4.  Exercises involving the fingers also are helpful
The National Institute of Mental Health conducted experiments that showed finger exercises enlarged the capacity of participants' brains, increased connections between neurons, forged new neural pathways, and increased circulation to brain areas. Perhaps I should use chopsticks at mealtime and an abacus at taxtime!

You're lucky if your hobby is piano or guitar playing, crocheting, knitting, or arts and crafts that involve manipulating small parts.  If you're not, many finger exercises are used in the DVD mentioned above. And here are a few suggestions from a Wikipedia article on brain fitness:
Here is an exercise you can do anywhere, at any time. Put one finger on top of the one next to it, then try to stack the next finger on top of that. Or hold a pencil or pen between your index and middle fingers, roll it over until it's balanced between the middle and ring fingers, then again to between the ring finger and pinky. This exercise has a beneficial impact on brain health for anyone at any age, but especially for people in their 40s, 50s and beyond -- when signs of brain aging starts to set in. (emphasis added)
I'll try to add more examples of brain exercise later, but how about you? Have you found any helpful brain fitness exercises?

BTW, I'll make a posting later on the pros and cons of the commercial computer-assisted brain fitness programs that are being highly advertised (and priced).


Nayeema said...

Informative post. Thanks for sharing.

Nayeema Akter

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