Saturday, March 20, 2010


Yesterday I saw an ad on TV for a device that claims to exercise and strengthen one’s brain. Use it or lose it, the pitch man said. This tweaked my interest, so I Googled brain training and was amazed at the number of products and on-line programs available. I found some of the advertising claims to be ridiculous in over stating what the device could do.

Numerous studies have shown that with age comes a decline of mental capabilities characterized by slowed thinking, a reduced ability to learn (“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”), and impaired memory. The cause of this decline can be attributed to various factors, some inherited, some inflicted on us - vascular changes, stress, and a decrease in the number of nerve cells – and some life style choices like alcohol consumption. The question is, can we do things to slow or even reverse these changes?

You bet there are. A body of research shows a relationship between staying physically fit and mentally fit – in other words, keeping physically active pays benefits in preserving mental function. In addition, several studies confirm that mental stimulation slows this natural decline. So doing things like reading or playing Spider solitaire on your computer help, but sitting in a recliner watching old movies probably doesn’t.

The “brain training” products I checked out require concentration and attention, both of which are important for sustaining short term memory. So in this regard, most of these devices do force the participant to mentally work and this type of mental “exercise” is good for preserving function. The problem, of course, is that just like physical exercise, many of us lack the discipline to expend the effort in a daily routine.

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