Brain training: fact or fiction?
MANY of us are concerned about dementia, whether from sadly seeing a loved one degenerate or personally fretting just because we mislay our keys.
There is now a virtual 'dementia industry', including a proliferation of 'brain training' products.
But do they really work? The answer seems to be no - and yes!
No brain training product has been shown to decrease the development of dementia as yet, according to Dr Susan Hillier of UniSA's School of Health Sciences.
However in a presentation to the International Centre for Allied Health Evidence she said that some had shown benefits for specific skills, such as mental speed, attention, memory and problem solving.
The exercises that work are task-specific - "What you train is what you gain" was Dr Hillier's phrase.
Dr Hillier pointed out that our brains have been in their current form for about 100,000 years, but we have only recently reached the age (in years) where brain degeneration becomes a feature for significant numbers of people.
She said modern research showed the brain could change itself, because the previous belief that neurons don't regenerate has been proven wrong.
It is now known that the process of neuroplasticity underpins not only all learning, but also operates after injury (neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout life).
However, we need to know about this process and how we can manipulate it positively, because the physiology involves many intricate processes whereby synapses (the connections between brain cells) can resume lost function.
Dr Hillier said lifestyle factors had been associated with the rate of change in the ageing brain.
They include maintaining a lower weight; avoiding or managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease; quitting smoking; having eight hours sleep a night; balancing stress - not too much and not too little; and maintaining social and friendship networks.
There is also a need for physical activity which needs to be regular, enjoyable and moderately taxing.
Dr Hillier said walking rapidly for 45 minutes three time a week was associated with a 30-40 per cent risk reduction for dementia, and there were similar findings for gardening and dancing.
Other important lifestyle factors included adequate nutrition and hydration, including having fish, lean meat, fruit and vegetables, dairy, wholegrain cereal, nuts and legumes and water. There should also be special treats such as alcohol <\#150> in moderation.
There are also benefits in activities for the benefit of others, such as volunteering, and being positive
Mental stimulation is also important. Regular and high levels of reading, games, puzzles, crosswords, complex tasks, and visiting museums all have positive effects.
Dr Hillier recommended a checklist for products suggested by the University of NSW Brain and Ageing Research Program:
Is it based on scientific research?
Is it structured?
Does it clearly target specific tasks?