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VOL. 40 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 15, 2016

Keeping your brain fit will pay off in later years

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Mental agility has been defined as “cognitive and psychological adaptability, or the ability to think rapidly and creatively under stress.” A site called “Mind Fitness Training Institute” says that “an agile mind … can anticipate or quickly adapt to uncertain or changing situations ….”

Billions of dollars is spent each year by Americans chasing physical fitness. A 2006 Washington Post article by Shankar Vedantam said that “there are no comparable efforts to keep people mentally agile.”

Vedantam wrote about “the first definitive study to show that honing intellectual skills can bolster the mind in the same way that physical exercise protects and strengthens the body.”

Regular exercise sessions aimed at boosting reasoning skills, mental processing speed and memory may stave off mental decline in older and middle-aged people, the study states.

The research tended also to show that the pluses extended beyond specific skills learned by the test subjects. Some of the participants were as much as three times faster than others in specific activities that factor into the decision of whether one can live independently – such as looking up phone numbers, reading medicine bottle ingredients and reacting to road signs.

“Experts said the federally funded study is a call to action for anyone who has ever worried about developing Alzheimer’s, dementia and similar disorders,” Vedentam wrote.

Volunteers were put in four groups: a group that received no training, a group that was trained in reasoning skills, a group that was taught memory skills and a group that was given exercises to speed up mental processing.

All groups had 10 sessions of 60-75 minutes, each progressively more challenging than the previous. Vis-à-vis the control group, the memory trainers did 75 percent better on memory tasks five years later; the reasoning trainers did 40 percent better on reasoning tasks; and those who got the speed training did 300 percent better.”

The study involved 2,802 healthy adults, with an average age of 73, from diverse walks of life.

“Although it did not examine the effects of mental exercise on people who had begun to show signs of Alzheimer’s or other brain disorders, previous studies have pointed toward the conclusion that anyone can benefit.”

Researcher Michael Marsiske said, “This kind of training works no matter where you are in society. If you think you have come to a time in your life when new learning is impossible and there are no benefits of continuing mental activity, the study shows that for a large number of people this is not true.”

While the subjects in this study ranged in age from 65 to over 90, “Marsiske said the findings apply to people in their 50s or even younger. Mental skills acquired earlier in life persist well into old age, he said.”

Lead researcher Sherry L. Willis said that those who were trained “reported greater confidence in their ability to solve everyday problems.”

The study was published a decade ago in JAMA. Predictably, its findings are, hailed by proponents of word games and puzzles.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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