Brain Gain: Your Guide to
Mental Fitness

By Loma G. Davies Silcott
Illustration by Mark Holmes

"Use it or lose it" applies in the mental as well as the physical realm. People worry that they may be losing their mental abilities. If you forget your keys when you're 30, you laugh about it. However, if you forget them when you are 50 or 60, you begin to wonder whether you are slipping mentally.
Actually, only about five percent of people aged 65 and older suffer from severe memory disorders. Thomas Crook, director of Memory Assessment Clinics, a private research group in Bethesda, Maryland, states: "Older people need to realize that it is perfectly normal for certain types of memory ability to decline with age and that these changes are not generally predictive of a serious problem. The good news is that unless you're a jet fighter pilot, the kinds of memory declines that come with growing older don't matter much and can usually be compensated for." Recent studies indicate that "using it" physically and mentally can help keep you from "losing it" mentally.
"Overall health has a strong effect on intellectual functioning," states Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the aging program at the National Institute of Mental Health. He suggests that memory and mental sharpness can be partially safeguarded by such basic maintenance as good nutrition, exercise, and avoiding tobacco and alcohol.
"The normal aging brain, free of disease, may well function as effectively and efficiently as the normal, younger adult brain," says Dr. Lissy F. Jarvik, University of California at Los Angeles. She adds, "Significant cognitive impairment is due to disease and not to normal aging."
Other memory loss is caused by medications. Since the average adult over 65 takes 7.5 medications, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, these medications could be causing the problem. If you think this might be a problem for you, talk with your doctor. Maybe a switch in medication or a change in dosage will help.
In addition, a lack of certain B vitamins, thiamin, and calcium can cause memory loss and sluggishness. And, if your brain does not get enough glucose, the delivery of nerve messages can be slowed. If you suspect you aren't getting enough necessary nutrients in your diet, check with your doctor for appropriate diet changes or supplements.
Physical exercise helps increase mental abilities. Psychologist Alan A. Hartley of Scripps College in Claremont, California, and his colleague, Louise Clarkson-Smith, studied the exercise habits and test scores of 300 people, aged 55 to 91. The subjects ranged from people who did no exercise to those who ran six miles a day.
The researchers found that the more the people in the study exercised, the better their performance in reasoning, memory, and reaction-time tests. In fact, significant differences were found between those who did no exercise and those who did as little as thirty minutes total a day which could include a 10-minute walk and then just regular daily tasks. "Greater oxygen flow to the aging brain could stimulate this improved mental performance," according to Hartley. He adds, "You don't need to run a marathon to get the benefit."
In addition to physical exercise, mental exercise is necessary to help maintain mental alertness. Dr. Jerome Yesavage, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School, found that 30 percent to 50 percent of memory loss due to aging can be restored through mental exercises.
There are many ways to exercise your brain. If you are physically able, get out of the house. See, hear, and experience life. Take a walk, go to the mall and people watch, visit friends, check out a book at the library. Volunteer a few hours a week at a school, hospital, convalescent home, go anywhere you can be with people and use your brain.
Even if you are housebound, organizations like SeniorNet-a nationwide network of computer users aged 55 and older-can help you keep in touch with other Seniors literally all over the world. And, once you master the elementary basics of computer operation, you can use it to play games, write letters, and do an almost endless variety of mentally stimulating activities-without leaving home.
The television show Jeopardy is advertised as "exercise for the brain." Actively watching shows like Jeopardy, playing Trivial Pursuit, or learning a new foreign language-all these help stimulate your brain.
Working on crossword puzzles and word games helps inductive reasoning, the ability to see relationships, or make inferences. You use inductive reasoning to understand what you read, such as the directions on a medicine bottle.
One way to help restore memory loss is to improve your power to visualize connections between names and faces and increase your powers of association. You can do this by assigning smells, shapes, colors to items on a grocery list. "The older person has a much weaker imaging ability," Yesavage states. He continues, "They dream less and see things with less detail. We found we had to train them to improve their visual imagination before we could improve their memories with 'imaging' techniques."
Spatial orientation, the ability to mentally turn two- or three- dimensional objects, is necessary for reading road maps or following instructions for assembling things such as furniture. Doing woodworking or intricate needlepoint can help sharpen spatial orientation.
"Many older people suffer from anxious and depressive thoughts and they consume a lot of processing and thinking capacity with thoughts of how bad their memory is," Yesavage says. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
One solution is to remind yourself that memory is a skill that can be sharpened and improved, not a biological problem you are unable to change.
"Learn new things, continue reading, make your own decisions," advises Dr. Walter Schaie, psychology professor at Penn State University. "It's a matter of trying to be engaged in life, of not seeing new things as threats but as opportunities and challenges."
So, keep your brain functioning effectively by doing your physical and mental calisthenics. If you do, you will keep using it for many happy years to come.

About the author: Loma G. Davies Silcott of Rapid City, SD, has authored more than 600 articles. Her book, The Nuts & Bolts Writer's Manual is now in its second printing.