By Anna Rahman
I hope Lena Dunham views this as the compliment it’s meant to be: I’d like to appoint her the unofficial spokesperson for cognitive aging.
What’s my rationale for bestowing this “honor” on the 28-year-old creator and star of the HBO hit series Girls? The lady’s newfound commitment to regular exercise and highly lauded, if somewhat racy, way with words. In April she posted an Instagram photo of herself in yoga togs along with a caption noting that regular exercise is now helping her control her moods. “I know it's mad annoying when people tell you to exercise,” she wrote, “and it took me about 16 medicated years to listen. I'm glad I did. It ain't about the ass, it's about the brain.”
Spot on, Ms. Dunham, for that sassy message is wholly in keeping with advice given by Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its recent report “Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action."
Cognitive Aging Is a Normal Process
The IOM report comes at a time of rapid demographic change, as an estimated 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day. As the years add on, interest in staying mentally sharp grows, if only out of fear of the alternative. Among adults age 50-plus, fear of dementia, say gerontologists, trumps most other aging-relating concerns, including fear of cancer and fear of death.
The IOM report helps allay those fears. Written by a committee of the nation’s leading authorities in cognitive health, the report normalizes cognitive aging as a “process that occurs in every individual, beginning at birth and continuing throughout the life span.” For doubters, it adds—in no uncertain terms—that “cognitive aging is not a disease.”
Like other parts of our body, the report explains, our brains develop and change over time. As we mature, we often lose some cognitive function—in processing speed, decision-making, and some types of memory, including “working” or short-term memory—but develop new strengths: wisdom and expertise. Put it together and what it means is this: your forgetting one of the items you meant to buy at the grocery store is likely not an indictor of imminent dementia. It just means you should have made a list. (Gradual changes in cognition are normal, according to the IOM report; steep declines warrant assessment.)
Experts Weigh in on Computer Brain Games
So how do you maintain cognitive health? Ironically, the best strategy is kind of counterintuitive. You might think—as lots of folks do—that regular workouts with computer brain games will keep your mind in shape. After all, the developers’ marketing materials promise as much. These claims, however, are so wildly overstated that in October, 75 highly regarded psychologists from leading universities across the globe publicly chastised brain game vendors for misleading consumers. In an open letter published on the website of the Stanford Center for Longevity, the psychologists laid it out: “No studies have demonstrated that playing brain games cures or prevents Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.” Further, they wrote, “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.”
Exercise Your Brain with Physical Activity
So if memory games and puzzles don’t work, what does? The answer is as simple as it is surprising. According to the IOM report, and indeed most experts on aging, the number one way to stay mentally fit is to stay physically active. Ms. Dunham is right: Exercise is about the brain. As a general rule, more is better than a little. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate to intense aerobic activity, or about 30 minutes a day on five days a week. That said, some is better than none. So set aside your electronic devices and take a brisk walk, go for a swim, break out your bike, or dance to the radio. Simply by increasing blood flow to the brain, physical activity--of all kinds—helps maintain optimal cognitive function—at all ages.
Anna Rahman, Ph.D., is a research consultant with the Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California.
Image via Flickr user David Shankbone
PLoS has also had 2 important recent articles relevant to this article: a meta-analysis of brain games (incl. what aspects work and which don't) and a randomized controlled trial looking at the dose response of cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise (75, 150 and 225 min/wk):
I am a 68 year old African American career female. At the beginning of the year, I weighed in at 172 lbs. I enjoyed brain games and considered myself intelligent. When I began having medical problems and was told by my physician that I really needed to lose weight. I prayed about the decision I was about to make and began a serious life changing eating habit that has seen me lost 32 lbs (so far) and a mental alertness I have not had in years. Your article is so true and thank you for submitting it.