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Brain training, curiosity, and aging

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"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." -- Albert Einstein

For many of us, the desire to learn diminishes over time. We're born with an enormous share of curiosity, but we tend to become less curious over the years. However, research suggests that a healthy sense of curiosity is both good for us and recoverable. Those of us who continue to strive for knowledge are likely to experience better physical and mental wellbeing throughout adulthood. The relationship between mental health and a spirit of learning suggests that age is as much a state of mind as a tally of years lived.

Olga Kotelko, a Vancouver-based world champion athlete recently featured on WBUR, is an inspiring example of how a healthy curious attitude can benefit us both mentally and physically in our later years. She did not begin her training in track and field until she was 77 years old. Now 95, Olga still competes in many events, including long jump, high jump, discus, and various sprints. She keeps an impressive collection of medals in her closet and holds 26 world records. In an interview with the Huffington Post early this year, when asked about how she stays in such stellar shape, Olga described both her mental and physical exercises, professing an affinity for Sudoku, card games, and anything that challenges the mind.

"Anyone who stops learning is old," she said. "Knowledge is power. Age is but a number.... I'm still learning every day."

Olga treats her brain the way she treats her body, subjecting it to a regular routine of mental exercises. Health experts have long been in agreement that physical exercise is one of the best ways to ward off age-related decline. Now, they are considering whether an exercise routine for the mind can have as great an impact on health.

The rise of brain training

Even with a lifetime of facts and impressions crammed into our brains, we always have the ability to learn new things. The brain retains what is called "neuroplasticity" in later life, the ability to make new neural pathways -- in laymen's terms, the ability to learn. Some neurologists are looking to tap into this feature to keep the brain active and healthy, using an approach that mimics physical exercise. "Brain training" makes use of specially designed computer games that target specific areas of the brain, just as different physical exercises target different muscles. The games are designed to be fun while engaging a variety of brain functions, such as short-term memory and reaction speed.

The recently opened Brain Fit Club at Beth Israel Deaconess combines computerized brain training games with a variety of intellectual and social activities. Members of the club take a series of cognitive tests to determine which areas of the brain need the most work. One member's weaknesses may include reaction speed or attention span. The team of neurologists that work at the Brain Fit Club develop a personalized brain fitness program that specifically tests and improves these areas.

Interested in exploring the world of brain training? You can access a limited amount of games for free from brain training web sites like Lumosity and Brain HQ. See www.lumosity.com or www.positscience.com/BrainHQ to try a few of the games out (full membership to these sites requires a fee).

Beyond games

While brain training games are surging in popularity, they are not necessarily a panacea for cognitive decline. Routine, social engagement and structured activities are just as important. When we socialize, we make judgments, form memories, and forge new neural connections. Senior centers provide great opportunities for socialization for those who live alone. Those who decide to move into senior living communities benefit from the social environment as much as the daily activities. An article published in AARP, titled "Friends Make You Smart," focused on Stella, an 86-year-old who had begun to withdraw into herself following the death of her husband. In addition to becoming withdrawn, she was also becoming forgetful, skipping meals and often unsure what day it was. That trend was reversed when Stella's daughter convinced her to move into a nearby assisted living community. According to the article, "Within a month she was applying blush and wearing jewelry. She started playing bridge every week and walking three miles a day."

While brain training in a clinical setting or with computer games may be valuable, it is likely that an active social and intellectual life also has a positive effect brain health. Whether you read, take a course, visit your senior center or sing in your church choir, the chances are that active intellectual and social participation will yield benefits.

Adam Johnson is publications coordinator for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England. See www.youvilleassistedliving.org.

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