Exercising brain helps seniors live on own

Study shows mental training helps keep minds sharp

December 22, 2006|By Bob LaMendola | Bob LaMendola,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Just as exercise strengthens the body, a new study has found for the first time that brain exercise strengthens the ability of seniors to think more clearly and perform everyday tasks needed to continue to live independently.

Healthy seniors who had just 10 hours of classes to improve their reasoning powers reported having significantly less trouble than others with cooking, shopping and other activities, the study showed - and the benefits were still present five years later.

The study, in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, holds out hope that simple classes for the public could have powerful effects on seniors' lives, said Sally Schumaker, a professor of public health at Wake Forest University.

"This is pretty remarkable. It tells us this is a feasible approach, that people will stay with it for a significant time, that it works and that we can make a difference," said Schumaker, who was not involved in the study but who co-wrote an editorial accompanying it.

The improvement "is not a huge one. But we never expected training to be a magic bullet," said study co-author Michael Marsiske, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida. Marsiske said the findings could have implications for younger people as well.

Past research has shown that mental exercise can improve scores on tests, and that simple things such as crossword puzzles and reading keep the mind sharp. But this study is the first to link brain training to practical improvement in daily life. The findings, Schumaker said, may one day help ward off Alzheimer's disease, which will affect an estimated 13 million Americans by 2050.

The new study spent five years following 2,800 healthy seniors ages 73 to 74 recruited in Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, Indianapolis, Birmingham, Ala., and State College, Pa.

Researchers divided them into four groups: A memory group trained to remember word lists, while a reasoning group trained to logically complete series of letters or numbers. A speed group trained to quickly identify figures on a computer, and a control group received no training.

The three training groups scored significantly better on mental tests and continued to do so for five years.

More important, the reasoning group saw less decline in the ability to handle daily tasks, such as finances, housework, laundry and bus and cab rides. Over the five years, the group declined 0.4 points on a grading scale where a zero means a task is impossible to do and a three means a task is no problem. The control group declined 1.2 points.

Schumaker said the results suggest more research should be done to develop specific, practical ways to stave off the decline in seniors' life skills, and then use those techniques along with drugs that slow Alzheimer's.

Marsiske said there's a lesson for healthy seniors and for younger adults, too, who can start to show declining mental function as early as the 30s.

"Challenge yourself to learn things that are difficult and new for you," Marsiske said. "We have a public health culture to exercise and to eat healthy food. What we don't have yet is a public health culture to emphasize the need for mental exercise."

Bob LaMendola writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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