Keeping your mind sharp in later years
October 28, 1999
Web posted at: 5:53 PM EDT (2153 GMT)
By John A. Cutter
Americans may be turning to everything from vitamin E to prescription drugs in an effort to remain mentally sharp, but researchers are now saying that the brain may not need help. It might be producing new brain cells on its own.
The new study, published in the Oct. 15, 1999 issue of the journal Science, is creating a stir among researchers who have long believed that brain cells aren't replaced once they die. Though the research was done using monkeys as test subjects, study authors write that the results could eventually lead to new therapies to improve human memory and intellectual skills in old age.
Until then, doctors are saying that people can retain their cognitive function -- and even improve it -- by exercising the brain.
"The brain requires stimulation to function well," says Dr. Robert Kahn, coauthor of the recently published book "Successful Aging" and professor emeritus of psychology and public health at the University of Michigan. "If people are isolated and not interacting with others, if they are not reading, not using their brains in all the ways they can, they tend to lose cognitive power."
Although the brain is not a muscle, the idea of "use it or lose it" applies, Kahn says.
That's the strategy of Marilyn Bartholomew, a retired school counselor from Tampa, Florida, who has taken classes at the University of South Florida (USF) in such subjects as writing and genealogy. She says the classes have helped her to feel more alert while avoiding the memory difficulties or mental inactivity that can be common in other seniors.
"I have an insatiable desire to learn," says Bartholomew, who declined to reveal her age except to say that she is older than 65. "It helps me feel connected to life, to feel healthy, both physically and mentally."
Dr. James Mortimer, head of the Institute on Aging at USF, says that people like Bartholomew may be doing the right thing to keep the brain functioning well. Animal studies suggest that a stimulating environment may lead to better cognitive ability, but researchers don't yet know exactly which mental activities at what stages in life are most valuable to older people.
"There certainly is support for the idea that using your brain can't hurt and probably helps," says Mortimer, who is analyzing mental exercise as part of an extensive study of almost 500 seniors in Florida. "It's cheap and can be done without a lot of effort."
Kahn says studies show that healthy older adults who take training courses can improve their scores on memory tests to the same level as younger people who don't undergo the same training. Such courses can include learning tricks like associating names with sounds, grouping words in a pattern or linking words with a visual image.
Making lists also becomes more important as a memory aid as people age, Kahn says. Other tricks, like wearing your watch upside down, are the equivalent of tying a string around your finger as a reminder. An auditory suggestion (saying out loud, "I'm putting my car keys on the dresser," for example) can help the memory last longer.
A natural progression
Kahn adds, however, that most people can expect to experience some decline in memory and intellectual abilities as they pass age 50. How much is lost depends upon such things as level of education, as well as physical and mental health.
People process and retrieve information slower as they age. They also can have trouble responding to multiple stimuli, such as receiving oral and visual instructions at the same time. Also, explicit memory -- the kind used to recall a name or other recently learned information -- can decrease.
Still, people in their 40s, 50s and 60s often worry the first time they forget a name. They shouldn't, says Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
"All of us are a little forgetful at times," Petersen says. "A problem may be beginning only if there is frequent, repeated forgetting of important information." The cause of such repeated forgetfulness could be stress, depression, prescription drug use or overuse of alcohol.
Not so natural
Memory loss could also signal what Petersen calls Mild Cognitive Impairment, or MCI, a step between normal aging changes in mental function and Alzheimer's disease. Many people with MCI function well in everyday life, except their memory is abnormal for their age and education. About 12 percent to 15 percent of them, however, develop Alzheimer's each year.
A national study, based at the University of California, San Diego, is looking at the possible benefits of large doses of vitamin E or the Alzheimer's drug Aricept (donepezil) to improve mental functioning for people with MCI.
Most people, however, are not at risk of developing MCI or Alzheimer's disease. Kahn, who is 81 years old, says the most important message for most people is this: "People should know that as they age, how well they do mentally, how sharp they are, is to a considerable extent in their control. Read, do crossword puzzles, play chess -- anything like that will be helpful."
Copyright 1999 webmed, Inc. All rights reserved.
RELATEDS AT :
Memory loss: It's not inevitable
Alzheimer's: Few clues on the mysteries of memory
Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center of the National Institute on Aging
The Mayo Clinic
The Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study
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