Mental Gymnastics To Combat Aging

One intriguing question regarding living longer, healthier lives is whether mental exercise can effectively slow age related memory loss or even Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.  As an older gentleman asked at one of my presentations, “Can’t you just take care of that by doing crossword puzzles?”

As “Boomers” age, these questions will persist and, while the “crossword puzzle” theory of staving off memory loss is likely a vast oversimplification, we as a society are sensitive to the truism “use it or lose it.”

With this as background, my curiosity was piqued to read of a new “Brain Gym” opening in San Francisco, California.  How would visitors perform “mental calisthenics”?  I tried to visualize the mental equivalent of a handstand, chin-up or cartwheel.  The “gym,” called vibrantBrains and operated by Lisa Schoonerman and Jan Zivic, hosts classes, lectures, and author appearances with drop-in computer “brain-training” sessions.

Zivic’s introduction to the field came from her own traumatic brain injury and  recovery.  Schoonerman became engrossed with memory issues when her mother was diagnosed with dementia.  The San Francisco site appears mostly to act as a community resource and clearinghouse for books and software to keep the mind active, supplemented by healthy foods and “smart” snacks in a pleasant social environment.  It is unclear whether actual physical exercise is part of the regimen.

One interesting comparative study might be to match results of a “Brain Gym” against, for instance, Yoga or Tai Chi classes at a local Y or sessions with a personal trainer coupled with a healthy life style, balanced diet and regular exercise.  My guess would be that, especially for persons who do all this and also keep their minds active, the crossword puzzler, for instance, the outcomes would be similar.

Using software to extend the powers of the mind or to assist the brain to adapt to traumatic brain injury is not new.  Locally, an organization known as the Institute for Cognitive Prosthetics, www.brain-rehab.com, headed by Dr. Elliot Cole in Bala Cynwyd, has been developing software programs for over 20 years especially to assist in rehabilitating those with traumatic brain injuries clinically.  The “Brain Gym” idea is a popular adaptation.

Still curious, I continued my research and discovered that the term “Brain Gym” covers a wide spectrum both for the young and seniors.

In Utica, New York, a teacher takes his classes on regular nature walks and supplements classroom experience with exercise to improve learning and refers to it as a Brain Gym.  In Muskegon, Michigan, Timberland Charter Academy contends that certain specific physical activities assist students with other specific mental capabilities to develop coordination, dexterity and focus.

In Wausau, Wisconsin, the Brain Gym, a program through the University of Wisconsin –Stevens Point Continuing Education Arts and Culture Outreach and the Stevens Point Area YMCA, began as a program to assist children with learning disabilities and is now involved in educational kinesiology or learning through movement focusing on brain development and sharpening how you think.

Finally, Water’s Edge retirement community in Bradenton, Florida, offers a “Brain Gym” stocked with computers and software which occupies space with an actual gym and heated outdoor pool and comes with a personal trainer.  Gayle Mulliken, the Assistant Director, in an interview with a local newspaper summarized their philosophy.  “If you stay physically, mentally, and socially fit, you will keep going longer and better than if you sit at home all day watching TV.”

While the success of brain calisthenics is still debated beyond possibly memorization of lists and sharpening of mental focus, the benefits of physical exercise are conclusive.  Sandra Aamodt, co-author of an upcoming book, “Welcome To Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How To Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life,” and an Op-Ed Contributor to The New York Times, recently affirmed the strong connection between physical exercise and a reduced risk of dementia later in life.  “People who exercise regularly in middle age are one-third as likely to get Alzheimer’s disease in their 70’s as those who did not exercise.  Even people who begin exercising in their 60’s have their risk reduced by half.”   Her  advice for those who search for rejuvenation through software programs is simple – turn off the computer and go for a long walk.  One of my friends, a personal trainer, Linda Jassmond, at www.FitnessLinda.com, would probably agree.

About the Author Janet Colliton

Esquire, Colliton Law Associates, P.C. Janet Colliton has practiced law for over 38 years, 37 of them in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her practice, Colliton Law Associates, PC, is limited to elder law, Medicaid, including advice, applications and appeals, and other benefits planning including Veterans benefits, life care and special needs planning, guardianships, retirement, and estate planning and administration.

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