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Increase your brain fitness and live longer

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 12 a.m.

If you think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, think again. According to psychologist and health and wellness expert Dennis Kravetz, not only can you continue to learn as you age, but keeping your brain fit can help you live longer.

“People who are cognitively fit are less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s because they’re constantly helping the brain rewire itself,” said Kravetz, also the author of “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Live Long, Live Healthy.”

It was widely believed by people that if you lived to an excessively old age, like 100 or more, you would almost always have some cognitive decline, but this isn’t the case.

Kravetz said research done in the Netherlands on a woman who lived to be 115 showed no cognitive decline despite her age.

“She started getting regular memory tests at the age of 80 and she never deteriorated at all in 35 years,” he said. “She donated her body to medical science and they found no protein deposits in her brain, which is what develops when there is cognitive decline. We thought there was always some slight decline in cognitive function in the brain just from age, but that case rewrote the book and opened everyone’s eyes.”

Here are Kravetz’s tips to increase your cognitive fitness:

• Quiz yourself as you read: “Let’s say you pick up a National Geographic, and a couple hours after you’ve put the magazine away, try to recall what you’ve just read. Many people can’t remember what they’ve just read let alone retain the information. The trick is — stop periodically and review to yourself what you’ve just read. Then a couple hours later, remember it again. If you do three or four repetitions of the same memory on the same day or within 24 hours of reading an article that is the key to potentially remembering it forever.”

• Continue to work after you retire: “I see a lot of guys who are like a ball of fire at the office and after two years of retirement they’ve aged 20 years,” he said. “Now they golf or sit around and watch television and they’re not using their brains like they used to in the workplace. You need to use your brain every day. When we work we’re absorbing new information. We have to process it, do things with it, make sense out of it. If you aren’t actively learning new things, your cognitive abilities will suffer.”

• Exercise: “Aerobic exercise helps your brain. Have you ever had a tough decision to make and you’re sitting at your desk and you’re thinking about this problem … and you can’t come up with an answer? Now you go for a walk or a bike ride or maybe even pace back and forth and all of a sudden the answer pops into your brain. What went on is you provided more blood flow to your brain by doing the aerobic exercise. You pump more blood into the brain and brought more nutrients and oxygen into the brain itself.”

• Take up a hobby: “When I’ve coached folks to learn new hobbies, they will often say, ‘I was so busy working all the time. I don’t have any.’ But your part-time hobby with antiques can lead to you buying and selling them on the Internet or you may go to swap meets where people are buying and selling.”

• Play board games or do a puzzle: “You’re actually rewiring your brain each and every time you develop a new memory and the proof of it is you have that new memory. And a game like Scrabble can be good because it may remind you of words you haven’t used in a while.” Kravetz said playing against a computer can often be more challenging than playing with a person. “The Scrabble computer brain has a dictionary with 5million words in it. If you try to play against that it’s almost impossible. Be sure to put the settings to ‘moderate’ so you can win at least once in a while.”

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