Is It Possible to Work Out Your Brain?

Many people try to ward off Father Time by walking, working in the garden or hitting the gym regularly. After all, we can see the results when we look in the mirror. But is it possible to work out our brains?

While still inconclusive because there is not yet a comprehensive body of research, new studies are starting to show that it is possible to work out our brains as we age to keep them as active as possible. Of course, just like going to the gym twice a day will not return you to your 21-year-old body, “working out the brain” is not going to return you to your youth when you could remember where your keys were. It is all relative, but exercising your brain may help with memory and cognition.

There is a term for people who show lapses in memory (and other mental functions) yet it doesn’t impact their daily activities. It is called mild cognitive impairment and up to 20% of people who are more than 70 years old get it. Approximately 10% of these people will develop dementia, which will drastically affect their independence and daily lives. Unfortunately, there are few effective options for treating dementia.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal recently did a study that included 32 randomized controlled trials that showed how effective some proposed remedies are for improving brain function. Those remedies are drugs, herbal remedies, hormone therapies, physical activity and mental activity.

There is no strong evidence to support the contention that drugs are going to help improve brain cognition. This has been backed up by numerous other studies that have concluded that prescription drugs are only minimally effective in trying to delay the symptoms of dementia. But since doctors are grasping for anything that might work and a few drugs do help some patients minimally improve, they continue to prescribe them.

Herbal Remedies: As much as some people would love to say forget the doctor, try this herbal remedy instead, there is little evidence supporting they help brain function. Remedies like ginkgo, the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), omega-3 fatty acids or vitamin B have no scientific proof to back up they make a significant difference.
Hormone Therapies:

This is one where the cure is worse than the disease. Estrogen and testosterone therapy showed they may increase risk of brain decline. In a study of more than 10,000 women, those that took estrogen therapy increased their risk of dementia after five years by 80% compared to the women not taking the hormone. Studies of men taking testosterone suggested that the hormone might hamper short term memory.
Physical Activity:

Exercise is good for your body, what about your brain? The answer is a tentative yes, but more research is needed. Recent studies and trials that included resistance and balance training and aerobic activities found that resistance training improved short and long term memory of some participants. Aerobic activities helped some executive functions such as planning and organizing, but not memory.
Mental Activity:

The most dramatic benefits involved mental exercise. In these trials, participants learned computer-based training programs or performed memory, reasoning and speed-processing exercises. The participants who trained on these types of skills showed significantly better memory and attention skills than the control group. One trial even reported that participants retained improved memory at a five year follow-up.

What are the best ways to engage the brain to reap these benefits? Anything that keeps thinking and organizational or memory circuits active can be helpful, according to recent studies. For example, last year, researchers from Tohoku University in Japan showed that elderly men and women could improve some of their declining mental abilities — at least in the short-term — by playing the game Brain Age. The game quizzes users on a variety of topics and presents the questions in brain-teasing ways.

Unfortunately, more research is still needed on the interaction between aging and what people can do to keep their brains “in shape.” Some studies have shown that playing chess may also be an excellent way to stimulate different parts of the brain. However it is not clear whether chess, crossword puzzles or daily sudoku can bypass mild cognitive impairment or steer an aging brain away from dementia. There is not enough research that has been done with a large number of participants yet to come to that conclusion.

So if a person wants to “work out the brain” there is no silver bullet. As we age, the brain ages with us, and nothing is going to prevent that from happening. However, even though solid research-based evidence is minimal, if you want to go to the “brain gym”, it appears that physical exercise and mental stimulation are the best bets at this time.
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