Keeping mentally active (Part 1)

Keeping mentally active (Part 1)

by Brenda Patoine

How the brain ages—and why some people’s brains hold up better than others—is a complex puzzle involving an interplay of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Scientists have spent decades tracking people’s activities and habits as they age to determine what distinguishes people who retain good mental faculties from those who fare less well. Many of these studies are ongoing, so we can expect new clues to be revealed as researchers learn more.


Already, certain qualities seem to stand out as consistent characteristics of people who age successfully in terms of brain health and maintaining cognitive function. In their book, “Keep Your Brain Young,” Marilyn Albert, PhD, and Guy McKhann, MD, neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University, talk about three fundamental tenets of successful aging:

  • Staying mentally active

  • Staying physically active

  • Maintaining “self-efficacy”


Staying mentally active doesn’t mean we have to master 5-star Sudoku every day, but it does mean turning off the television, a notoriously passive activity. The key is to actively engage the brain in novel ways. This could mean breaking out of old routines and learning something new, or simply doing something old in a new way. Activities that stimulate and challenge us intellectually seem to be best.


In the same way, staying physically active doesn’t mean we have to pump iron like a bodybuilder or run a marathon! Simply walking, or engaging in active hobbies such as gardening, can help meet a daily “exercise quota.” A minimum of 30 minutes a day most days of the week is a good starting goal, but it doesn’t have to be done all at once. The important thing is to do something active on a regular basis, to make it a part of your day-to-day life.


Self-efficacy, Albert and McKhann say, entails an ability to adapt to life’s challenges and to maintain a degree of independence in and control over one’s life. Sustaining social ties with friends and family seems to be critical—the more people get out of their house and engage in social activities, the better they seem to do, experts say. Managing stress and keeping a positive outlook on life is also important.


The bottom line is that the things we do every day can and do make a difference in how well our memory and learning abilities hold up as we age. Simple changes can make a big impact, and the more changes we make, the bigger the impact is likely to be.


Exercise your mind

A lifestyle that includes stimulating mental activity, especially in the context of social interaction, is clearly correlated with healthy brain aging. This has been a consistent finding from large, well-designed studies of older adults. The largest controlled clinical trial to date (2009), which was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and reported in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, found that cognitive training sessions improved the memory, concentration and problem-solving skills of healthy adults 65 and older. (1)


The effects were powerful and long-lasting, effectively erasing 7-14 years of normal cognitive decline and persisting for at least two years. The NIH trial follows numerous smaller studies that have shown varying degrees of benefits from specific types of training. A common theme that has emerged is that cognitive training can improve older adults’ ability to maintain day-to-day activities, and that the skills learned can enhance functioning on similar-minded tasks, but may not transfer to other aspects of cognition. For example, memory training might improve recall, but may not help with problem-solving.


In the largest clinical trial ever conducted to test the usefulness of cognitive training interventions (dubbed the “ACTIVE” trial), study subjects engaged in three types of training exercises: (2)

  1. Memory training included strategies for remembering word lists and sequences of items, text material, and main ideas and details of stories.

  2. Reasoning skills involved training in how to solve problems that follow patterns, strategies that can be used in tasks such as reading a bus schedule or filling out an order sheet.

  3. Speed-of-processing training focused on the ability to identify and locate visual information quickly, which can be applied to tasks such as looking up a phone number, finding information on medicine bottles, and responding appropriately to traffic signs.


Immediately following the five-week training period, 87% of participants in speed training, 74% of participants in reasoning training, and 26% of participants in memory training demonstrated reliable improvement on the respective cognitive ability. The training effects continued through a two-year follow-up period, particularly for the participants who received “booster” training.


This article is provided courtesy of the International Council on Active Aging