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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Do mental workouts keep your mind sharp?

Yesterday when I saw a Christmas card in our post-box, I wondered who went right down to the wire with their mailings this year. It was my last card returned for lack of address. I only put the name on the envelope -- no postal address. Could this be a sign of my mental decline after age 50? Earlier this month (Dec. 2), I watched NBC's "Saturday Today" with interest as a fellow only a few years older than me took a test for his brain age. He was horrified to be rated in his '80's mentally, but after a session of exercises prescribed by Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA's Center on Aging, this guy got down to near the ideal of 20 years of brain age.

The ideas gained by men before they are twenty-five are practically the only ideas they shall have in their lives. -- William James (1893)

According to an article by Debbie Geiger of Best of New Orleans, Dr. Small recommends cross-training for the brain, for example by solving visual mazes with your right-brain and completing crossword puzzles with your left. To facilitate mental workouts, you could make use of resources on the internet, such as Happy Neuron, or buy a new computer game by Nintendo called Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! It includes Sudoku math puzzles and word quizzes, and the software tracks your progress over time. More recently the game-maker released Big Brain Academy (see review by Walter Mossberg of the Chicago Sun-Times). Both of these Nintendo games are based on the theories of Japanese brain researcher Ryuta Kawashima. Ironically, he initially earned the ire of the software publishers by claiming that their computer games stunted brain development.

It seems prudent that, before investing money in software and time to do mental exercises, one should see whether scientific evidence provides any support for such expenditures. This week the Washington Post reported positively on mental exercise based on a randomized controlled trial detailed in the Dec. 20 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It involved several thousand aging adults (over 65 years) who were divided into groups trained for memory, reasoning, and spead processing. Compared to a control group that received no brain training, immediate improvements were seen by most individuals. However, after five years (with some 'booster training' along the way), the effect was only significant for the reasoning group.

These results stike me as being somewhat ambiguous over the long haul. For a more balanced view, I recommend reading Mental Exercise and Mental Aging Evaluating the Validity of the "Use It or Lose It" Hypothesis by Timothy A. Salthouse, which appeared in the March 2006 of Perspectives on Psychological Science. This is a very detailed article that thoroughly reviews relevant studies. In the end, the author's professional opinion is that the benefits of mental exercise hypothesis stem more from optimistic hope than empirical reality. However he suggests that, one should "continue to engage in mentally stimulating activities because even if there is not yet evidence that it has beneficial effects in slowing the rate of age-related decline in cognitive functioning, there is no evidence that it has any harmful effects, the activities are often enjoyable and thus may contribute to a higher quality of life, and engagement in cognitively demanding activities serves as an existence proof -- if you can still do it, then you know that you have not yet lost it." Sounds good to me, but then what do I know (other than what I knew at age 20-25)?


  • At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Sheryle said…

    Hi, Mark,

    One thing you may not know about Dr. Salthouse--he's one of the researchers on the ACTIVE study, too. It's a very large study involving many researchers at a number of institutions. When Dr. Salthouse reviewed the same data that the JAMA article summarized, he came up with very different results--totally consistent with his earlier views and his summary paper that you mention. He definitely has a point of view that is consistent no matter what the material reviewed seems to be. Always good to have a contrarian (you may notice he's always the person quoted in these articles) but I applaud the authors of the JAMA article for their disciplined review of the data. I believe, for one, that their conclusions will be very helpful to many people and they are also consistent with other studies (Bronx Aging, Chicago Aging, to name only a couple).

    Nice to see your blog!


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