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Building Up Your Brain

Your exercise routine might focus on boosting heart health, losing weight or strengthening muscles and bones. But what about the fitness needs of your body's all-important command center—your brain?

Although often a subject not thought about until later life, it's important to keep your brain healthy and strong no matter what your age.

Physical activity is a good first step, since exercise—even just walking—increases blood circulation, bringing more oxygen to your brain and increasing brain cell growth. This effect occurs even as we age. Research with almost 6,000 women age 65 or older showed that those who were more physically active when first tested were less likely to show cognitive decline six to eight years later. Regular exercise in later life appears to be linked to a delay in the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Your brain needs mental exercise as well, to strengthen function through stimulation. Cognitive training in memory, reasoning or speed of processing information can improve those skills in older adults, with positive effects still seen five years after such training. It's unclear whether mental exercise can prevent dementia or Alzheimer's disease, since genetic susceptibility and other health factors play a strong role, but keeping your brain active may help.

Instead of vegging out in front of the TV (which does very little for your brain), try these good ways to give your brain a workout:

  • Learn something new by taking an adult education class, attending lectures at your local library or community group or picking up a kit for a hobby you've never tried.
  • Build logic and reasoning with engaging Sudoku puzzles, which use numbers similarly to how crossword puzzles use letters.
  • Read every day, from a wide variety of sources.
  • Challenge what your brain is used to doing by switching hands when you brush your teeth or use a computer mouse. Keep your eyes closed while dressing.
  • Play word and card games, which strengthen thinking and memory skills.

References

The Franklin Institute, "The Human Brain—Exercise."

Yaffe K, Barnes D, Nevitt M, et al. "A Prospective Study of Physical Activity and Cognitive Decline in Elderly Women: Women Who Walk." Archives of Internal Medicine, 161(14): 1703-1708, 2001.

Larson EB, Wang L, Bowen JD, et al. "Exercise Is Associated With Reduced Risk for Incident Dementia among Persons 65 Years of Age and Older." Annals of Internal Medicine, 144(2): 73-81, 2006.

Willis SL, Tennstedt SL, Marsiske M, et al. "Long-term Effects of Cognitive Training on
Everyday Functional Outcomes in Older Adults." Journal of the American Medical Association, 296(23): 2805-2814, 2006.

Gatz M. "Educating the Brain to Avoid Dementia: Can Mental Exercise Prevent Alzheimer Disease?" Public Library of Science Medicine, 2(1): e7doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020007, 2005.

"Stay Mentally Active." Alzheimer's Association.

©2007 National Women’s Health Resource Center, Inc. (NWHRC) All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the NWHRC. 1-877-986-9472 (toll-free). On the Web at: www.healthywomen.org.

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