By, Pamela Atwood, MA, Director of Dementia Care Services
Ever heard of the “use it or lose it” theory? For many years, researchers have believed that mental activity, as well as physical fitness, is important to keep the mind sharp as we age. Over the past decade, more and more research has shown positive effects of brain games to maximize brain health and reduce the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
It is important to realize that there is a difference between reducing one’s risk of getting diseases like Alzheimer’s and preventing them altogether. Since researchers have not yet discovered the cause of Alzheimer’s, they’ve not yet found a sure way to prevent it. There are many people who had well-developed brains and who did crosswords every day without fail (and were physically active, social, well-nourished, educated and spiritually engaged), and still developed Alzheimer’s. However, dementia experts, researchers, doctors, and advocates from organizations like the national Alzheimer’s Association are urging Americans to do whatever we can to minimize risk. With the aging of the baby-boomers, it is estimated that 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s by 2050, unless we find a cure! They believe that cognitive fitness, as well as managing medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes reduces the risk of illnesses which cause dementia.
Exercising your brain is important because it helps build new networks between the neurons in your brain. I explain it like knowing how to get home – if there’s an accident on your usual route, do you know another way? As disease or injury effects the neurons in a brain, can the brain compensate by sending information a different route? At the very minimum, dancing, playing cards and doing mentally stimulating activities will improve general quality of life. It is hoped that maintaining good “cognitive fitness” by doing crosswords, Sudoku, Mahjong, tangrams, visual illusions, and other mentally stimulating activities will afford the brain more protection. The research indicates that staying active physically, socially, spiritually and cognitively is important for maximizing memory. For more information, check reliable resources like the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org or 1-800-356-5502) or the National Institute on Aging (www.alzheimers.org or 1-800-438-4380).