Brain Training

I keep seeing advice that it’s important to keep my brain active, especially to delay the onset of dementia, or at least of its effects. But is this true? And if so, what should I do about it? Will a daily crossword or Sudoku be enough?

The UK Alzheimer’s Society says that: “Keeping your mind active is likely to reduce your risk of dementia. Regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to build up the brain’s ability to cope with disease. One way to think about it is ‘Use it or lose it’. Find something you like doing that challenges your brain and do it regularly. It’s important to find something that you’ll keep up. For example: study for a qualification or course, learn a new language, do puzzles, crosswords or quizzes, play card games or board games, read challenging books or write (fiction or non-fiction).”
The US Mayo Clinic is less certain: “There’s no sure way to prevent dementia, but there are steps you can take that might help. More research is needed, but it might be beneficial to do the following: Keep your mind active. Mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, solving puzzles and playing word games, and memory training might delay the onset of dementia and decrease its effects.”
It seems to be well-established that exercising the brain will improve cognitive function in some way. For example, some online games have proven that continued playing of the game results in improved scores.

However there’s no solid evidence yet that exercising the brain in this way will delay the loss of cognitive ability associated with dementia, or slow its progress. Basically, playing Sudoku regularly may be enjoyable, but all it probably does with your brain is improve your ability to play Sudoku.

A recent BBC TV programme ‘Trust me I’m a Doctor’ stated that “Studies have suggested that learning a second language could delay the risk of dementia by up to 5 years.” They carried out an experiment, enrolling 20 volunteers (10 young and 10 aged over 56) on a Spanish language course for one month. Measures were taken before and after of attention, memory and mental flexibility. The result was an improvement for all, with the older volunteers showing the greatest improvement.
Their neuroscientist expert explained that while exercises like Sudoku exercise only one region of the brain, practising languages engages about 20 different regions, improving connectivity throughout.

So, if you do want to take some form of brain exercise, with a view to delaying the possible onset of dementia, or at least of the effects, then learning a language seems to score best.
A major study by the US National Institute of Health was carried out in 2017, reviewing and comparing all previous studies on the effect of bilingualism and onset of dementia. Results were mixed. Various studies that had followed groups of people through their lives tended to show no association between bilingualism and onset of dementia. However the studies of people who had developed dementia showed that where the patients were bilingual, they had been diagnosed 4 or 5 years later than non-bilingual patients.

So what’s the best advice? It does seem that you have nothing to lose by learning a language, and it certainly will improve overall cognitive ability more than any game or puzzle. And the bonus is that it’s possible that it will also delay any onset of the signs of dementia by 4 or 5 years.
But of course … all the evidence is that the best way to protect your brain, is by consuming a healthy diet, and taking regular physical exercise.

So what do I do? I’ve been learning French off and on for years, and each time I read a news item about the value of learning a language, I do make an extra bit of effort!

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Sources

Alzheimer’s Society on reducing risk:
https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-prevention/how-reduce-your-risk-dementia

The BBC experiment:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2NsHY4MhL95FgclByxS1XRl/can-learning-a-new-language-boost-your-brain

US NIH on languages and dementia:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5656355/

Mayo Clinic on Dementia: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dementia/symptoms-causes/syc-20352013

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