Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mental, physical exercises are important keys to brain fitness

Mental health
Quick test: True or false. Puzzles and games are used as mental stimulation to prevent and repair memory loss. Answer: True.

Just ask gerontologist Sharmone LaRose, a certified memory impairment specialist who is the department chairwoman for the Older Adult Program at Torrance Adult School.

In her memory fitness classes, LaRose covers techniques to improve short-term and long-term memory and keep the brain healthy.

The key, she says, is to keep the mind stimulated and to learn new things.

Dr. Keith Black, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, agrees.

"Like a muscle, the brain needs to remain active, so continuing to challenge the brain is a very key component to maintaining a healthy brain, particularly as we get older," Black said.

"Puzzles and games are very good," he said. "But more importantly, if you've been doing puzzles all your life, try something entirely different. It's the challenge to learn a new task which has been shown to be very critical."

One game LaRose has her students play is the board game Reminiscing, in which a player spins a wheel to identify an era between 1940 and 2000. The player must then answer a question about the era the wheel lands on.

LaRose says pulling information from the past like this helps stimulate long-term memory. As a bonus, games such as Reminiscing also promote social interaction.

"If you become socially isolated and have no interaction with others, you begin to digress mentally as well as physically," LaRose said.

"You begin to kind of get lost in your own thought and you just retreat and that's a big problem for anyone - but especially as we age, and many people find themselves in that predicament if they're no longer physically capable of getting out. So that's important to stay socially engaged - the research shows that."

There are numerous other ways to keep the mind sharp as well. Research shows that physical exercise can help maintain cell regeneration in the brain, Black says.

LaRose adds that cardiovascular exercise oxygenates the whole body and brings the endorphins up, which benefits brain function.

Like exercise, other aspects of a healthy lifestyle are found to help brain health.

"All the things that we know to be of practical use - limiting our alcohol intake is key and maintaining a good healthy diet is very key," Black said.

"Some of the things we are beginning to look at now are things like DHA, which is a component of fish oil which has been shown to be very helpful in promoting brain health as well. So these are all things we know to do that we don't do, but studies are showing more and more how critical these things are to preventing dysfunction as we get older."

DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid. Other good sources of omega-3 are olive oil, flaxseed oil and nuts.

Antioxidants found in foods such as blueberries, acai berries and green-leafed vegetables also are important, LaRose says, while Black recommends pomegranate, grape juice and grapes. The skin of the grape, he says, contains compounds that are good for the brain.

But more research is being done on how diet affects brain function.

"The other thing that we are beginning to investigate is the role of turmeric acid, or curry sauce, that's very high in...

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