3 Ways to Power Boost Your Aging Brain

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Sadly brain functions peak at age 30 and go downhill from there. Thankfully, scientists are now researching the effectiveness of braintraining on the aging brain. Sharon Begley says what they’re finding out about meditation and cognitive abilities is very promising.

When talk turns to trying to attack the decline in mental capacity that comes with age, we hear a lot about crossword puzzles and braintraining. And common sense might suggest that brain calisthenics would be the most effective way to rage, rage against the dying of the mental light. That’s certainly what the purveyors of braintraining programs claim. But evidence suggests that directly attacking our cognitive deficits may be less effective than using indirect approaches—such as exercise and meditation and working on deep-seated mental processes—to rejuvenate the mind.

Even for those who don’t contract a disease such as Alzheimer’s, the years take a toll on the brain. Processing speed slows down. Signals reaching cortical areas from the senses become less sharp, more muddled. Production of neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine drops. Inflammation—the same process as in hardening of the arteries—also seems to age the brain. As a result, we get worse and worse at multitasking, switching attention, and remembering why the heck we just walked into a room.

Scientists haven’t been waiting for the final word on the physiological underpinnings of brain aging before trying to devise ways to combat it. And while there have been some misses, there have been enough hits to give hope to everyone over 30— the age by which many brain functions peak.

3 Ways to Power Boost Your Brain

1) Aerobic Activity

First, aerobic activity. About a decade ago, psychologists led by Art Kramer of the University of Illinois discovered that, in older adults, taking three vigorous, 40-minute walks per week over six months improved the ability to control attention and inhibit distracting information, among other cognitive improvements.

According to the Illinois team’s description of why this occurs, aerobic exercise spurs neurogenesis (the creation of new brain neurons) and increased production of white matter (which connects neurons) in areas responsible for forethought, planning, and other key executive functions that weaken with age. Since then, study after study of middle-aged and older adults have shown that almost anything that gets the blood flowing— mall walking, vigorous sports, dancing—improves memory and reasoning.

2) Braintraining games

The value of braintraining that directly targets functions that decline with age—memory being the obvious, and most popular, example—is less clear. Some of the glowing reviews you can find on company websites and even in research journals fail to account for the familiarity effect: If you practice remembering which patterns of tiles you’ve seen before, you improve, partly because you develop tricks. But it remains to be seen whether that carries over into better memory in real life, let alone into improvement in other cognitive functions. Unfortunately, when scientists looked at all such studies of one popular program, the claims for cognitive improvement were deemed “largely unsubstantiated.”

That’s also what the largest study of brain-boosting interventions, called ACTIVE(Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly), found. The 2,832 adults, ages 65 to 94, in this government-sponsored trial received either no training (the control group) or training in reasoning, memory, and processing speed in 10 sessions of 60 to 75 minutes each.

  • Memory training offered strategies like forming mental images or associations: To remember a list of words that includes pigeon, hammer, and sofa, for instance, visualize the bird smashing the furniture with the tool.
  • Reasoning training, such as identifying the pattern in a string of numbers, offered strategies such as breaking a problem into easier steps. In each of these trainings, people got better at what they trained on, but there was essentially no transfer: Getting better at memory did not sharpen reasoning, or vice versa
  • Speed-of-processing training followed a different pattern, however. ACTIVE used a version of a program called Double Decision, created by Posit Science. You spot a target in the middle of the screen while simultaneously noticing one in the periphery. With practice, the brain detects targets more quickly. It’s not obvious that this would translate into, say, greater ability to keep track of all the characters and shifting allegiances in Game of Thrones. But while only 25% of the ACTIVE subjects who received memory training showed improvement in overall cognitive ability, 87% of the speed-of-processing group did.

That’s a vote of confidence for targeting the fundamental changes that mark brain aging. The idea, said Posit chief executive Henry Mahncke, a neuroscientist, is to “fix the underlying information-processing machine rather than target higher-level functions like memory directly.” Indeed, a 2009 study by scientists at the Mayo Clinic found that people using a Posit program that trains hearing—distinguishing high tones from low ones, telling whether two tones are the same or different—made statistically significant (though not huge) gains in memory and processing speed. The memory improvement was equivalent to about 10 years, so 58-yearolds regained the memory ability of their pre-AARP-eligible selves.

3) Mindfulness Practice

The findings on the effects of mindfulness are more preliminary, but intriguing. One 2013 study taught Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to 201 older adults for eight weeks, and tested them before and after on the Trail Making Test. Considered a way to measure executive function, the test is essentially about connecting dots, but with letters thrown in: rather than connecting 1 to 2 to 3, you have to connect 1 to A to 2 to B to 3, and so on, which requires the frontal cortex to flip between accessing numbers and letters. By the end of mindfulness training, the trainees’ executive function increased by about 12% while the control group got worse. Six months later, the trainees gave back some of their gains, but very likely would have kept more of them, or even improved further, if they had continued practicing MBSR. That’s a problem with many studies like this: They test a short-lived intervention rather than the effects of a long-lived change such as practicing MBSR regularly.

In any case, the benefits this study found jibe with the deepening recognition that mindfulness strengthens the neural circuitry associated with emotional control, as it trains practitioners to focus on the contents of their mind or perceptions dispassionately and without judgment. “Emotional control and cognitive control share somewhat of a similar neural circuitry,” said psychologist Ruchika Prakash of Ohio State University, co-author of a 2014 paper reviewing mindfulness and the aging brain. That suggests that the emotional circuitry that mindfulness engages can also “be tapped to enhance cognitive control,” which declines with aging.

In a development that focuses on not just mental aging, but aging altogether, Elissa Epel, in the department of psychiatry at the University of California–San Francisco, has been leading a group of researchers testing the possibility that meditation may be able to slow down cellular aging. Shortened telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, have been linked to chronic stress exposure and depression. And shorter telomere length has been associated with aging. Since research suggests that meditation may decrease stress and depression, the investigators are trying to see whether this is resulting in reversing the shortening of telomeres and therefore slowing down cellular aging.

One thing is for sure: We will not live forever, but if meditating, dancing, walking, and connecting a few dots will make the mind a little more spry, why not?

Sharon Begley is a senior science writer with The Boston Globe Media Group, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. She writes a regular column for Mindful magazine called Brain Science.

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