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The Search for a Sharper Brain

by Susan Fair + illustrations by Dan Jae Smith

Brain Train

If your New Year's resolutions don't include pumping a little "mental iron" as well, they should.

It’s winter.  The couch and TV are beckoning. Your brain is in a zombie-like fog. Is there really any hope for maintaining — let alone improving — your mental acuity throughout the winter doldrums? And what about in the long run? We’ve consulted an assortment of experts as we go in search of the elusive entity known as the “sharp brain.”  Our findings might surprise — and hopefully inspire you.

Has winter got your mind in hibernation? Are you tempted to just give in and zone out? Unfortunately, when it comes to your brain, it really could be a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.

Melinda Tucker, admissions coordinator for assisted living at Diakon Senior Living in Hagerstown, says consciously working on mental fitness really does help stave off memory problems. “Brain fitness really helps to stimulate our minds and keep the brain from becoming dormant. Even if you aren’t having any memory loss issues, you still need to enhance your brain activity,” she says.

Mind Games

According to numerous people in the know, it is possible to obtain a sharper brain — and there’s science to back this up. But the path to a better brain begins as a mysterious one.

One of the first things that come to mind when we think of brain fitness is all those “get smart” video games, right? But a visit to local gaming stores discloses that the heyday of the brain enhancement video game has seemingly come and gone. Discs with titles like “Brain Age” and “Brain Academy” are relegated to the discount shelves.

Welcome instead to the era of the brain app. This might seem like a catch-22 for those of us whose brains aren’t up to date on the latest technical skills, but it just might be worth the effort.

Dr. Gary Small is the author of “The Memory Prescription” and “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program.” As a professor of psychiatry and the Director of the UCLA Longevity Center, he’s considered an expert on memory. Dr. Small says, “There is a lot of real science looking at how the brain responds to mental stimulation — studies showing that we can train our brains to work better. Some of these studies have shown that some video games can in fact teach the brain to multi-task better and train working memory. When you train working memory, it actually translates into the ability to solve problems.”

If you’re going to be spending face-time with a screen anyway, brain-enhancing game apps might not be a bad idea, and they’re not hard to find.  Lumosity.com calls their games a “brain training program” and boasts 40 million registered users. And through Happy-neuron.com you get personalized games and a “brain coach” to oversee your gaming.

Melinda is an advocate of Dakim Brain Fitness software. “Dakim provides multiple levels of challenges including music, movie clips, stores and trivia … our residents love it. It keeps them engaged, they’re learning, and they’re having fun doing it.”

But we might want to practice moderation with our brain games. Chambersburg psychologist Dr. Harold Miller says, “Being connected all the time — it’s all at a price. Our brains need rest and recovery, especially from looking at computer screens.”

Brain in a Bottle?

If brain-enhancing apps aren’t the whole solution, what should we try next?

At some local vitamin stores, you can find bottles enticingly labelled things like “Brain Health Formula” and “Sharp Thought” crowding the shelves. Popping a supplement and get a sharper brain sounds tempting. While chats with customer service folks at these stores suggest that effects can be subtle, they also have customers — many of them students — who seem to swear by supplements for peak brain performance. The link between mind and body is quite real, so is this a valuable part of the equation that equals a sharper brain?

Cindy Held, a registered dietician/nutritionist with a private practice in Hagerstown, strongly suggests anyone considering supplements to get evaluated by a physician before popping the pills, and says not to get your hopes up. “Unless you have a deficiency of B vitamins or you’re anemic, you’re probably not going to benefit from supplements. But you do still need the right foods.” Cindy says sharpness seekers should bear in mind that physical health is very much connected to mental alertness. “A low energy level in your body is going to translate to a low energy level in your brain.”

Dr. Small says many so-called brain supplements haven’t been well tested, so be sure to discuss such formulas with your doctor. “Just because it’s called natural doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he cautions.

Here’s another reason to get evaluated by a doctor if you’re feeling fuzzy-minded: potential hypoglycemia. “You can feel the ebb and flow of your brain,” says Cindy, and with fluctuating blood sugar levels, hypoglycemia is sometimes to blame for the ebbs. She also suggests checking cholesterol since normal levels promote a healthy blood flow to the brain.

Building Brain

With nutrition just another piece of the puzzle, it still feels like something is missing — but what?

With years of research under his belt, Dr. Small has the answer. His number one piece of advice to folks seeking a sharper brain: Get more physical activity. With exercise, you get more blood to the brain, and in turn, quite literally, a bigger brain, says Dr. Small.

According to a study described in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” the hippocampus — the area of the brain associated with spatial memory — actually grew in people who walked for 40 minutes three times a week for a year.

The path to a sharper brain is finally coming into focus. Anything missing? We might not have to look far to find the answer.

Friends in Mind

On a recent chilly afternoon, Elisabeth Creech, a retired health professional, gathered some of her friends — Merwin Hans, Liz Schwartz and Ginger Omdahl — together in her cozy Boonsboro living room to talk about what has kept their brains fit, and to offer suggestions as to what the rest of us can do stay sharp. And this group is obviously onto something. Not only are they smart, active, involved in the community and much too busy to watch much if any TV — they range in age from 74-94.

Merwin, who retired from the Department of Labor in 1980, stays physically active but likes his exercise to have a sense of purpose. “I find it better if my exercise is accomplishing something,” he says.

Liz, a retired librarian who is 94, has also kept up a physical-exercise-with-a-purpose regimen. Her specialty is gardening. She says she has especially enjoyed using a tiller because,“It really gets the muscles going.”

The friends say they don’t have the time or need for brain games. “You’re just interacting with a machine, not a person,” says Ginger, also a retired librarian. “You’ve got the thumbs going and not much else.”

Another thing to consider: This group is probably benefiting merely by being friends. Dr. Miller says having friends and a positive support system is another key ingredient to a healthy brain.

Another tip Dr. Miller gives for achieving a sharper brain is to “Learn something new every day. Never stop being curious.” This, as it turns out, is what the group believes has done the most for their brains.

“Curiosity,” says Elisabeth, is what has kept their minds supple. “You should stay like a child and wonder about things and learn. And talk about what you learn with your friends.  Don’t just read a book — have a conversation about it.”