It’s a fact that our brains change as we age. But it’s a myth that there’s nothing we can do about those changes.
That’s one key message from the latest report from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent international group of scientists sponsored by AARP. The report says there is growing evidence that we can help keep our minds nimble by engaging in cognitively stimulating activities — everything from playing chess and gardening to working at an interesting job.
“People think that as you age, you calcify,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP senior vice president for policy and executive director of the GCBH. “The fact is that no matter what stage of life you are in, you have the ability to improve your cognitive functioning and your well being.”
Or as the report says: “Engaging in cognitively stimulating activities can help you avoid cognitive decline, delay it and deal better with it, should you eventually experience it.”
Here are a few other myths explored by the report.
Myth 1: Commercial “brain games” are your best brain-training bets
Although a new AARP survey found an estimated 25 percent of people 40 and older believe that brain games can help maintain or improve brain function, the new GCBH report says that evidence these online games can make a difference is “weak to nonexistent” and “often, the claims made by companies touting the benefits of these games are exaggerated.” When people play brain games, they are likely to get better at the games. But getting better at a word-completion or shape-sorting game has not been shown to transfer to everyday tasks, such as managing your finances or remembering where you parked your car.
Myth 2: There’s no evidence of any kind that any type of formal brain training works
Some kinds of brain training have shown promise. In a study called the ACTIVE trial (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly), healthy older adults who engaged in a few weeks of training designed to boost reasoning and processing speed saw benefits that lasted for several years, says council member Sherry Willis, a research professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. The training did include some computer games, such as one meant to build speed by requiring players to identify increasingly brief images as they popped up on the screen. One apparent benefit: The trained adults had fewer car accidents than their peers. But because other studies have found little or no benefit from brain games, the council says more research is needed on whether brain training helps people stay independent longer.
Myth 3: You can’t learn new things after a certain age
Actually, learning new things is one of the best ways to stimulate your brain and help it make new connections. So the council recommends that you take up a new language, a new dance step or a new cause — whatever interests and excites you. Even adding some novelty to an old hobby can help, Willis says. Crochet something other than the same old pot holder; or take your sudoku or crossword game to the next level.
Myth 4: Maintaining your brain is hard work
While you want to challenge your brain, you will get the best results by doing something you enjoy. “The more fun it is, the more likely you are to keep doing it,” Lock says. So do more of something you already love, or take up something you have always dreamed about. Plan and plant a garden. Take a photography class. Play the piano. Research your family tree. If you have an interesting job you enjoy, that’s a bonus. You can consider brain maintenance one more reason to keep working.
Myth 5: Maintaining your brain is all about using mental muscles
Yes, reading and doing crossword puzzles stimulate your brain. But so does playing tennis, practicing tai chi or taking a brisk walk through your neighborhood. Physical activity is one of the best-studied methods for maintaining brain health. For example, one study found midlife exercisers were up to 40 percent less likely than their peers to develop problems with thinking and memory. Exercise with a friend or a group, and you get the added benefits of social engagement — along with extra motivation to show up for that workout, Willis says.
Myth 6: If you do everything right, you will never experience cognitive decline or dementia
Sadly, there is no miracle program that prevents normal brain aging or dementia. But it’s also true that dementia “is not inevitable, and you can do things to help yourself be in better shape,” Lock says. Attitude matters, she says: “If you believe you can make a difference, you can. It sounds a bit Pollyannaish, but it seems to be true.” — Kim Painter
For more on the research on what types of activities keep your brain active as you age — as well as additional myths about the aging brain — see the Global Council on Brain Health report on cognitively stimulating activities.