Combat an aging mind with exercise, ‘brain fitness’

It was only a matter of time, of course, before the health and fitness industry discovered its next big thing. “Brain fitness” is the new fad – and not only among the aging Baby Boomers. It’s never too early to exercise your brain, we’re informed. If we can fight our physical decline every inch of the way, we surely should be able to do something against the decay of our minds.

  • Wednesday, May 28, 2008 12:00am
  • Life

It was only a matter of time, of course, before the health and fitness industry discovered its next big thing. “Brain fitness” is the new fad – and not only among the aging Baby Boomers. It’s never too early to exercise your brain, we’re informed. If we can fight our physical decline every inch of the way, we surely should be able to do something against the decay of our minds.

Brain health products are no longer limited to nutritional supplements, such as ginseng and bacopa, but increasingly include computer software specifically designed to enhance our mental functions. Video games and computer-based training programs called “neurosoftware” should help us power up our cognitive abilities when we find ourselves getting more forgetful and less at ease with learning new skills.

It’s no wonder that mind fitness has the attention of baby boomers worried that Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia could ruin their golden years. There’s almost a sense of panic among those who have long been looking forward to their active and fulfilling retirement.

According to the New York Times, “many people are taking matters into their own hands, doing brain fitness exercises with the same intensity with which they attack a treadmill.”

Unfortunately, a sagging brain can’t be surgically lifted or made smoother with a few creams and lotions. We may be able to sculpt our muscles by lifting weights; our brain power, however, does not improve by – let’s say – thinking heavy thoughts. And yet, that is pretty much what the newly emerging brain fitness industry is promising.

It’s plain to see that a lot of this brain fitness hype is largely propelled by fear mongering. While the decay of our physical health and beauty becomes eventually acceptable for most of us as a part of nature, our mental capacities are expected to last us for a lifetime. That is because our mind is much more a part of our identity than, for instance, our skin or our hair. Losing our mind is equivalent with losing ourselves.

Of course, the medical profession has no definite answers to what exactly causes age-related decay of brain functions. Even for Alzheimer’s disease, there are no definite answers. The diagnosis relies solely on the observation of its symptoms – as opposed to a genuine understanding of the actual causes.

While it certainly can be beneficial to challenge one’s mind through comprehensive reading and crossword puzzle solving (or playing video games for that matter), nobody should expect that “exercising” the mind in such manners can do for brain cells what physical activity does for bone density and muscle structure.

On the other hand, clinical studies have long shown that physical fitness and mental vitality are strongly connected, especially in the later stages of life. Stress, unhealthy lifestyles and bad eating habits have a much more significant impact with age. A slowing metabolism makes it harder to control weight gain. Obesity and high blood pressure often prevent people from getting a minimum amount of exercise when they actually need more of it. The resulting health problems multiply and become ever more debilitating in later years – and that includes brain functions.

Anyone who has ever maintained an athletic regimen, such as running, mountain climbing or bicycle racing, knows about the “high” one can get from physical exhaustion. This euphoria, this intense sensation of happiness is caused by an increased flow of Endorphin, a chemical compound that the brain produces in response to physical strain. It has also been shown to have other “side effects” that are highly beneficial for the brain itself. There is now a consensus among geriatric doctors and health care professionals that the best way to maintain our mental vitality may be the same way we take care of our physical fitness.

So, instead of getting all worked up about losing our minds, let’s enjoy a good book after we’ve had an hour at the gym or at least a brisk walk around the block.

~ Kirkland’s Timi Gustafson is the author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Her book is available in bookstores and online at www.thehealthydiner.com or at Amazon.com – To receive her free monthly newsletter by e-mail, you may send a request to tmg@timigustafson.com

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