Flex your mind; it's never too late to get your brain in shape - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - CogniFit

By Cristina Rouvalis | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/16/07

Dr. Paul Nussbaum is a lobbyist for brain exercises.

The man who has been dubbed the brain doc and the guru of brain health tells boomers and seniors who are forgetting things to drop the remote and start exercising their brains.

Learn a new language. Travel. Play a board game or a brain-stimulating computer game.

"The heart gets a lot of attention. It doesn't deserve it. It really is all about the brain," says Dr. Nussbaum, a University of Pittsburgh neuropsychologist with a specialty in gerontology.

Dr. Nussbaum is a consultant to Cognifit, which sells MindFit brain power fitness software to individuals and corporations.

He is part of a growing chorus of experts promoting new tools to help boomers and seniors to stave off memory loss. Often, boomers are motivated to exercise their mind because of memory lapses or they have seen someone older get Alzheimer's disease.

"You can't do anything about your genes," said Dr. James T. Becker, an associate director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. "But if your brain needs to be exercised, you take it out for a walk every once in a while.

"I don't care what people do. I just want the brain moving. If it is Sudoku, if it is jigsaw puzzles, if it is reading the Constitution in ancient Greek, knock yourself out. Just keep doing it. I think it is never too late to start."

The idea is to do new functions to build a brain reserve to delay the expression of memory loss or dementia, he said.

"If you do novel and complex things, you develop a reserve. It takes Alzheimer's a longer time to show its face."

A 1992 study examined the brain activity of living people with Alzheimer's disease. All the patients showed similar levels of dementia symptoms, but people with higher education had greater Alzheimer-related disease in their brains than people with lower level of education. People with a higher level of education "were biologically further along, but brain reserve had allowed them to compensate for the disease," Dr. Becker said.

Dementia, obviously, is an extreme form of memory loss.

But most people experience a much milder form of memory loss in their 40s. Suddenly, it becomes harder to multi-task -- move from task to task without losing one's train of thought.

Dr. Becker did a 2000 study of air traffic controllers, who are highly skilled at doing two things at once. At the age of 40 or 45, there is a slight decline in their ability to do just that. They cannot apply for the job after their 31st birthday.

In the view of Dr. Robin L. West, the memory system loses some of its "stickiness" in middle age. In her 20s and 30s, she could move around papers on her desk and know exactly where each paper was. But now the 56-year-old psychology professor at the University of Florida has no idea where her papers are -- unless she stops herself and makes a mental note of where she is putting them.

But Dr. West cautions against saying memory loss is inevitable. Boomers and seniors just have to plan ahead to compensate for changes in their brain.

The author of "Memory Fitness Over 40" and "The Everyday Clinic Memory Workbook," Dr. West teaches memory courses to show people techniques to remember things, including creating associations and making mental images of something. "The key is to tell people they have to do something. You have to accept memory changes."

Like physical exercise, mental exercise requires continual repetition of the muscles. "If you want to walk two miles, you have to continue walking," Dr. West said. "It's the same thing with the memory system. You have to push it to make it work for you."

Negative attitudes about memory loss tend to accentuate it. "My memory is not good," Dr. West said. "If you say, 'I won't be able to go to that lecture. I won't remember it anyway,' then you will be withdrawing from opportunities that will challenge you and will help you with your skills."

Dr. David Demko, a gerontologist at Miami Dade College, said in the past 10 years, the whole field of "neurobics" -- or brain exercises that enhance memory -- has exploded. The most obvious example is Sudoku, the Japanese puzzle craze.

"It's maintain your brain," said Pat Rutkowski, who teaches a Sudoku class at Friendship Village, a retirement village in Upper St. Clair. Ballroom dancing also helps both the body and brain, she said. "Your brain gets your feet to do what they are told." she said.

Dr. Demko suggests other ways to increase memory -- from memory-enhancing video games for seniors to learning a musical instrument to doing something as simple as trying to brush your teeth with your left hand instead of your right.

"Keep a dictionary around. Learn a new word while sipping coffee," he said. "Hum or whistle or sing along with music in the car. If you vocalize while listening, it stimulates your brain."

Or you can take a rote task such as driving to work and read the license plate of the car in front of you and try to translate the letters and numbers into a phrase. (But keep your eye on the road, he cautions).

Dr. Nussbaum, who is in his mid-40s, is learning how to play the piano because it stretches his mind in a new way. "You would not want to be around me while I play," he said.

He also touts the MindFit software 20 minutes three times a week. It bills itself as helping reaction time, short-term memory, memory recall and eye-hand coordination. The Israeli company that developed the software started selling it to corporations, charging $100 per employee per year.

"If I were a CEO, I would want my employees to be as cognitively fit as they can be," Dr. Nussbaum said.

Other computer products on the market include Nintendo's Brain Age and Posit Science's Brain Fitness Program.

Many people find memory loss about as welcome a part of aging as wrinkles and cellulite. But the good news is that their retention does not tend to decline with age, Dr. West said.

One study compared 20-year-olds and 80-year-olds learning a list of words. It took the 80-year-old longer to master the list -- but once they mastered it, they retained the words almost as well as the 20-year-olds when tested a week later, she said.

Dr. Nussbaum said he has given talks in large lecture halls, and almost everyone in the audience knows someone with Alzheimer's disease. But he preaches the gospel of exercising your brain -- not out of fear, but out of hope and optimism.

"You want to maintain your life story so you can share it with the next generation."