April 17th, 2013 at 10:00 am
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Brain food for elders: exercise and mental stimulation

by Dorian Martin

One of the things I’m really thankful for is that Dad’s mind is still intact. After caring for my mother during her losing battle with Alzheimer’s disease, I’m relieved that I don’t have to negotiate that slippery slope again. However, Dad does periodically have memory lapses, which I think have been caused by different issues, such as sleep issues or misuse of some of his medications.

Yet I think Dad takes for granted his current cognitive status. While he does read three newspapers a day, he doesn’t pursue other types of mental stimulation. He doesn’t interact much with others, instead choosing to stay home as opposed to going to a senior center. And he really doesn’t exercise (unless you count the regular walks to the bathroom, thanks to the diuretic he takes).

I keep encouraging — okay, nagging — him to take action because research continues to find that remaining physically and mentally active can help protect the brain.

Use it to improve it

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco examined what effect the combination of physical activity and mental activity had on cognitive function in the elderly. This study involved 126 older adults who lived in a community. The participants were inactive in general and experiencing some memory issues. This group averaged 73 years of age and the majority (62 percent) were women.

These older adults were asked to participate in mental activities at home for one hour a day on three days a week as well as taking part in an exercise class for one hour a day on three days a week. These activities continued for 12 weeks. Researchers separated participants into four groups, and the groups were assigned a combination of two of the following:

  1. Intensive computer work
  2. Educational DVDs on a wide variety of topics such as art, science and history
  3. Dance-based aerobic exercise
  4. Stretching and toning exercises

All of the participants’ mental abilities improved over the span of the study. Interestingly, there wasn’t a notable difference between the group that did computer work and the group that watched educational DVDs. And no significant difference was seen between participants who did aerobic exercise and those who did stretching and toning exercises. The study may imply that the amount of activity matters more than the type of activity.

Boredom is the enemy

This research should really resonate with caregivers who want to help elders preserve their brain function. But how can you do that? I’ve found that having a subscription to a service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, which have a wide variety of movies, documentaries and shows, can provide great mental stimulation.

You can find more ideas in an article proposing a memory fitness plan for loved ones with dementia. And another blog post discusses more research about physical exercise as a tool to fight memory loss.

Caregivers can spur elders to be more physically active through programs tailored for seniors, such as the Go4Life offerings from the National Institute on Aging. By encouraging activities such as these, a caregiver is helping elders help themselves in preserving quality of life.

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