"Use it or lose it"
has long been the battle cry of physical fitness
But many scientists are now expanding upon
the traditional concept of exercise, moving
beyond big biceps and brawny backs to focus
on perhaps the most important organ in the human
body: the brain.
The brain deserves -- and needs -- the kind
of respect and attention that befits its role
as a remarkably versatile organ saddled with
an endless list of housekeeping duties, mental
fitness proponents point out.
They note that, 24/7, the brain is called upon
to simultaneously regulate unconscious functions,
such as breathing, body temperature and digestion;
conscious functions, such as movement and talking;
and so-called cognitive functions, such as thinking,
learning, feeling and remembering.
To help the brain keep up this lifelong juggling
act, researchers are increasingly coming to
view a healthy brain as a "worked out"
brain -- one that is regularly stimulated and
challenged by rigorous mind-taxing tasks.
A lifestyle that includes such routine mental
activities will increase alertness and agility
of thought well into the golden years, while
perhaps forestalling the onset of age-related
dementia, according to experts.
"The more you do mentally stimulating
activities -- such as crossword puzzles or playing
chess -- the better it is," said Dr. Joe
Verghese, an assistant professor of neurology
at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New
Verghese recently co-authored a study that
found that seniors who engage in a wide variety
of mental pursuits while at leisure -- such
as playing a musical instrument, reading and
playing cards or board-games -- seem to dramatically
lower their risk for developing dementia.
But he stressed that it's never too early to
incorporate mental exercise into the daily planner.
In fact, it's a habit that should be encouraged
starting in childhood, experts say.
"If you haven't built a lifestyle that
includes mentally stimulating activities in
your 50s as a habit or a lifestyle, it's unlikely
you will do so in your 60s," Verghese said.
The list of practical mind-probing options
is long, including reading newspapers, listening
to music, writing letters and taking community
college or university classes. Even dancing
fits the bill, Verghese said.
"Anything that lifts your mental gears
a gear higher, and that includes physical activity,"
Dr. Joseph T. Coyle, a professor of psychiatry
and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School,
agrees that regular mental and physical activity
is -- at minimum -- a benign means to improve
the chances of staying healthier longer.
"Crossword puzzles are not bad for you,
and they may actually help prevent the onset
of dementia," he said. "So I would
say get regular exercise -- like walking three
or four times a week -- and find a hobby that
you enjoy that's intellectually challenging."
However, he cautioned that a well-exercised
brain is no hard-and-fast guarantee of longevity
or a better quality of life.
"It's clear that there are Harvard professors
that develop Alzheimer's
disease, and there are people with third-grade
educations that go on to live to 100,"
said Coyle. "So, on an individual basis,
it's hard to predict. Nothing is absolutely
Dr. Lawrence Whalley is the author of The
Aging Brain, and a psychiatrist and professor
of mental health with the School of Medicine
at Scotland's University of Aberdeen. He agrees
that brain health and dementia prevention are
complex issues, and many inter-related lifestyle
factors are at play.
"Being socially active, being an intellectually
engaged individual, having recreational time,
enjoying a good diet, lacking stress -- these
are all things that tend to help in avoiding
dementia," he said.
"Basically, whatever's good for your
heart is good for your head," Whalley added.
"Mortality of vascular disease in the United
States was halved between 1965 and 1995, and
this is one of the great public-health successes
of the 20th century. And what people are looking
for in dementia prevention is the same, because
the factors that everyone knows predispose to
heart disease also predispose to dementia.
"So, not smoking and eating a diet that's
balanced and rich in antioxidants and doesn't
lead to obesity works very well. And completing
mentally challenging tasks should also help,
so long as it's effortful, so long as you actually
have to try better to complete the task."