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Brain-training games and exercises, studies show, may help stave off dementia. Spend just a few hours engaging in exercises that teach the aging brain to increase processing speed, new research suggests, and you could dramatically reduce an older adult’s vulnerability to dementia. A slowing of processing speed—the ability to attend to and respond to incoming information—often accounts for age-related brain decline.
Scientists recruited participants in a long-term study on aging with an average age of 74 and divided them into several groups. Participants received either no training, 10 sessions of 60 to 75 minutes on memory or reasoning strategies, or 10 to 14 sessions of 60 to 75 minutes designed to boost processing speed.
Researchers who conducted the study found that participants who received speed-of-processing training sessions experienced a 48 percent reduced risk of dementia over 10 years compared to those who received strategy training or no training. Results were presented at the July 2016 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto.
Interested in building your brain’s processing speed? The list below includes good sources for speed-of-processing exercises:
“This very interesting study provides evidence that stimulating the brain to work more rapidly and efficiently not only helps to increase resistance to dementia, but also improves performance in other areas, such as attention, sense of control, and real-world activities like driving,” says Louisa Sylvia, PhD, Associate Director of Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Bipolar Clinic and Research Program.
“Although the research does not make clear precisely how speed-of-processing training has this effect on the brain, it makes sense that the challenge of reacting quickly to incoming information may help maintain the brain’s plasticity—its ability to grow and change in response to stimuli,” Dr. Sylvia said. “Activities that tax the brain and promote higher brain functioning are linked to the creation of new brain cells and connections, which likely helps to preserve brain health and functioning overall.”
Brain-Training Games: Four Exercises
The speed-of-processing training used in the study was based on a computer program called “Double Decision” (see “What You Can Do” sidebar), which is designed to improve mental quickness. The program includes tasks in which the user must identify an object—such as a car or truck—in the center of the screen while searching for a target object, such as another truck, in the screen’s periphery. A special computer program like this one, however, is not essential.
“There are a number of activities you can do on your own to help you build the speed with which you perceive visual or auditory information, and reduce the time required to respond to that information,” Dr. Sylvia says. (See the four exercises below for examples.)
Preserving Brain Processing Speed
The brain’s processing speed declines naturally with age. Little can be done to reverse wear and tear, such as the age-related deterioration of the myelin sheaths that surround and protect the axons through which nerve cells communicate with one another. But it may be possible to counteract other influences that contribute to the brain’s slowdown, such as those listed below, through changes in lifestyle and behavior.
- Problems with vision and hearing can interfere with the delivery of information from the environment to the brain. Solution: Be sure to have your vision and hearing checked regularly, and ensure that glasses and/or hearing aids are updated—and used—to provide your brain with the most accurate sensory information.
- Fatigue can interfere with your brain’s ability to process and encode information quickly and efficiently. Solution: Maintain a regular sleep schedule and try to get about seven hours of sleep at night. Seek treatment for conditions that are associated with chronic fatigue, such as sleep disorders, depression, and stress.
- Medical conditions like diabetes, cardiac problems, respiratory disease, thyroid problems, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure can damage the brain and affect processing speeds. Solution: Get regular checkups and work with your doctor to manage conditions that can slow mental processing speed.
- Physical and mental inactivity threaten the health of brain blood vessels and tissue. Result: a reduction in the development of new nerve pathways needed for efficient transmission of signals from cell to cell. Solution: Get regular aerobic exercise (try for 30 minutes a day at least five days a week) and keep your mind stimulated by learning something new every day, socializing with others, and regularly engaging in mentally challenging activities.
- Certain drugs, such as sedatives, tranquilizers, antihistamines, sleeping pills, and some antidepressants, can produce changes in brain processing speeds. Solution: Review medications you are taking to see if those that slow mental processing can be replaced with drugs that have no cognitive effects.
“It is also important to adopt a lifestyle with a nutritious, low-calorie diet, adequate sleep, exercise and stress reduction,” says Dr. Sylvia. “Get treatment for depression or anxiety that lasts longer than two weeks and/or interferes with your daily activities. “By taking care of your overall health and mental wellbeing, you can provide the optimal environment for rapid, efficient brain functioning.”
SIMPLE EXERCISES FOR A SPEEDIER BRAIN
The following four exercises are examples of activities that can help you speed up your brain functioning:
- Challenge your brain with alphabetical lists. Give yourself two minutes to think of as many items in a category—such as animals, plants, or cities—that begin with a specific letter of the alphabet. Now try again with another letter, and see if you can improve your speed. Do this exercise daily.
- Choose sports and other physical activities that require quick responses. Recruit a partner and enjoy regular, vigorous physical activities that require your brain to assess and react quickly to fast-paced changing circumstances, such as ping-pong, badminton, or tennis. Even pinball and similar arcade games can stimulate your brain to process information more rapidly.
- Get your game on. Get together with friends for regular play sessions featuring games such as Taboo, Scattergories, Boggle, or Password that require you to process information under time pressure.
- On your own, find free games on the Internet that promote speed of processing (examples: www.brain-improvement-tip.com/braingames, and www.wikihow.com’s How to Increase Your Brain’s Processing Speed).
- Learn speed-reading. Sign up for a speed-reading course, check out a book from the library or search for tutorials on Youtube or Wikihow to teach yourself a basic speed-reading technique. Then practice on a daily basis to boost the rate at which you read and comprehend information.