Worried about holding on to your mental dexterity and memory as you age?
Think Sudoko, cleverly-marketed computer games and ‘brain exercises’ are the answer?
Think again, regular exercise, such as a brisk walk three times a week, is the key to keeping, even growing, your cognitive powers as you age!
Despite what the advertisers would like you to believe, there is scant evidence that directly links computer or paper brain exercises with an overall improvement in mental faculties. Instead, these games tend to produce an improvement in the specific task the game trains you in. That is, you get better at the game, puzzle or at remembering lists accurately but unless the exercise spans a broad spectrum of abilities, there seems to be no benefit to general mental fitness.
So whilst these brain games and puzzles are fun and can improve specific skills, there are not a quick fix for mental decline associated with the aging process. A different sort of training, physical exercise, however, has been show to maintain and improve your part of the brain that controls your ‘higher level’ thinking.
Numerous animal and human studies have shown that regular exercise improves what is called our ‘executive functioning’. This is controlled by an area of the brain just behind your forehead and it is what allows us to choose appropriate behaviour, inhibit inappropriate behaviour and concentrate in the face of distractions. Executive function also influences basic cognitive functions such as processing speed, response speed and working memory.
Executive function starts to decline when people reach their 70s. But elderly people who have been athletic all their lives have much better executive function than sedentary people of the same age. Studies have indicated that when inactive people get more exercise, even starting in their 70s, their executive function improves.
So do you need to start training for the Olympics in order to remember your shopping list? No! Even just a regular programme of fast walking for 30 to 60 minutes three or more times a week will make a difference to your brain functioning. Plus you get the added benefits of improvements to your muscle tone, circulation and general health!
A big worry for us all as we age is the risk of dementia but again, we should consider an active life as part of our protection against mental decline. People who exercise regularly in middle age are one-third as likely to get Alzheimer’s disease in their 70s as those who did not exercise. Even people who begin exercising in their 60s have their risk reduced by half.
We’re not really sure exactly how exercise helps brain function: theories being investigated are the increased production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, improved blood circulation to the brain and the increased production of a growth protein that may stimulate the generation of brain cells and the connections between them. What is known is that regular exercise slows the age related shrinkage of the part of the brain responsible for executive function.
So put down that pencil, don’t bother investing in expensive computer games (which encourage you do spend more time on the sofa) and pull on some trainers. If it’s a while since you exercised regularly or you have some problems with backache, foot or knee pain then I’d recommend seeing your local chiropractically trained practitioner before you begin a new exercise programme. It’s better to start with a properly aligned and functioning body than to worsen niggling problems by ignoring them.
Remember, it’s never too late or too early to begin an active life.