Training your brain is harder than whipping your body into shape


Solving puzzles is one way to help keep your mind fresh as you get older. — dpa

Reseach is still exploring how exactly we can train the brain.

But we know this much: Solving puzzles can help keep your mind fresh as you get older.

Be it push-ups or weightlifting, you can quickly find effective exercises to strengthen your muscles.

It's more complicated if your aim is to train your brain though.

"We don't really understand what happens in the brain when we train a particular cognitive function," says Germany's Magdeburg University Hospital Institute of Cognitive Neurology and Dementia Research director Dr Emrah Düzel.

"We don't even know exactly where the processes take place."

Nevertheless, he says, it's generally possible to train a particular cognitive skill, such as memorising telephone numbers.

How this influences other cognitive processes or brain regions remains largely unclear, however.

Any kind of stimulus

Researchers hope to learn how to train overall cognitive performance.Although many questions remain unanswered, there are brain training programmes on the market, some coming with grandiose claims that Dr Düzel sees with scepticism.

On the other hand, he says, it doesn't hurt to try to stimulate your brain.

It can be helpful after a stroke, if you have trouble concentrating after anaesthesia, or simply in your everyday life.

It needn't be complicated either.

Dr Düzel tells the story of an American physician who, some 150 years ago, gave a politician with memory problems an assignment: Every evening the man was to report to his wife all the people he had met with during the day.

"He did this for several years," Dr Düzel says, and became better able to remember.

It's not quite clear why though.

"Either his memory improved, or over time, he developed strategies to concentrate on certain information, and thereby, better take it in and store it," says Dr Düzel, adding that it doesn't really matter so long as it helped.

"You can train your short-term memory, but not your long-term one," says Peter Sturm, co-founder of the Society for Brain Training (GfG), near Munich, where he's responsible for training the trainers.

For Sturm, brain training goes beyond memory exercises such as memorising telephone numbers.

"Modern brain training boosts and stabilises the basic functions of cognitive capacity," he says.

"That's the long-term effect.

"In the short term, training makes your mind faster and more alert."

Do something new

This is true, studies have shown, until the ages of 80 to 85, according to Sturm.

He says that while brain training doesn't arrest dementia, it strengthens the remaining intact structures of the brain.

How does it work?

"Everything that's new rouses the brain," he says.

"Simply do everyday things a little differently."

Try reading a text backwards, for example. Or read several lines looking for how often the letter "e" follows a "t".

You could also turn down the volume of the radio and try to make sense of what's being said.

"The brain doesn't like routine," remarks Sturm.

It's challenged when it has to explore new paths, and quite literally so when you're in an unfamiliar city or taking a walk in the woods.

Exercise in general seems to be extremely important to the brain.

"Physical exertion, coupled with the newness of something, is a key stimulus," says Dr Düzel.

Staying power is important as well.

"As in sport, it's no use going to the gym for 10 days and working out for five hours at a time," he says. "The body needs recovery periods, and so does the brain."

Simple exercises for elderly

How long the brain needs to process and reorganise information is something else that's still little understood, however.

"If you're curious, you don't really need brain training," says Sturm.

"Brain training helps when you face too few [intellectual] challenges in your everyday life."

This can apply, for instance, to people who require lengthy rehabilitation following a health condition.

Or to older people who are no longer as mobile as they once were.

Sturm also provides advanced training to staff in rehab clinics and homes for the elderly.

For older people, exercises using a sheet of paper and something to write with are suitable.

"Simply the act of writing stimulates blood circulation in the brain," he says.

Here's an example of an easy exercise to start with: The person has to cross out, in alphabetical order, a large jumble of letters written on a sheet of paper.

A more demanding exercise might be to draw a simple sketch of something from memory.

"With practice, it becomes fun," says Sturm.

He also recommends playing games together, such as a simple memory game.

"Social contacts activate the brain too," he points out, and says an interesting conversation is the best brain training.

"You listen and react to what's being said.

"This requires creativity, flexibility and retentiveness.

"It can also be done with people who are severely limited, in which case you ask questions that can be answered with a 'yes' or 'no'." – dpa

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Brain training , Puzzles , Sudoku , Dementia , Elderly


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