Health & Fitness

Exercise can get brain working harder

Three seniors are asked this question: What do a teddy bear, a Christmas stocking and a turkey have in common?

"You hug them!" said a former librarian.

But do you hug a turkey? prompted their questioner behind the table. She pauses.

"They all gobble?" said a 67-year-old man, grinning.

Welcome to the Brain Fitness Club. It's a window into a growing population in America: adults who are beginning to forget names, telephone numbers and how to drive home, but are aware enough to do something about it, whether that's playing word-association games or bowling on a Nintendo Wii.

While there's no magic pill for dementia, or even "senior moments," scientists are converging on what makes a brain-healthy lifestyle. And it looks a lot like the Winter Park, Fla., class and the dozen other brain clubs that have popped up in Central Florida.

"There's no universal prescription that will solve everyone's brain problems," said Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains, a brain-fitness think tank. "But the good news is, there is a lot we can do."

Not too long ago, scientists believed we all start with roughly 3 trillion brain cells that, through careless decisions such as drinking alcohol and playing tackle football, we gradually kill off. Once a brain cell was lost, the brain was one man down, forever.

That's a myth, we now know.

The brain is a tangled web of cells that is constantly rewiring itself, like acrobats unlinking arms and swapping partners. The brain can grow new cells to link into its intricate network, tossing a new gymnast into the act.

In the last five years, scientists have unlocked the secret to manufacturing the precious cells involved in memory and recall, the ones that light up when digging for our best friend's name or our mother's address.

In experiments where mice were timed running through mazes or recalling patterns, the rodents that broke a sweat on a hamster wheel performed better. After slicing into their brains, scientists discovered why: The exercising mice had grown new brain cells.

"Exercise creates a stronger, faster brain," said Beverly Engel, program coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association in Central Florida. Patients with Parkinson's disease have regrown brain cells after just two months of physical exercise.

No one knows the perfect exercise formula for brain health — some experts say 30 to 60 minutes, three times a week — but simply walking has shown benefits.

"The more intense, the better," said Engel. "But doing anything is better than doing nothing."

The practices that harm our body also harm our brain. Stress kills neurons and prevents new ones from growing, and can lead to depression.

A depressed brain is fertile ground for Alzheimer's. The disease attacks faster in depressed patients, and it shows in the autopsy: depressed brains are riddled with brain plaque, or sticky buildup around brain cells, and tangled protein fibers.

"The best way to get Alzheimer's is to be at home, isolated," said Nancy Squillacioti, director of the Alzheimer Resource Center in Orlando, Fla.

It seems the happier you are, the more you hold on to your memory. In a 2008 study of 50- and 60-year-old adults with dementia, the most socially active were the best at remembering word lists.

Before sessions start at the Winter Park class, men and women are schmoozing and smiling as they shuffle to their chairs around a square meeting room. Laughter cuts above the ambient chatter.

"The most helpful thing about this class is, I get to socialize with people," said Tommy Roberts, 72, a retired veteran. "I wouldn't trade this for anything." A pause. "Except for my memory back!" he said.

Research solidly suggests that exercise and socialization can slow dementia. But there's less agreement on mental exercises, such as the brain-teaser games that are increasingly marketed to aging adults.

Years of solving crossword puzzles helps keep your brain sharp — true or false?

"If you've done them all your life, it's just a regurgitation of knowledge you already have," said Engel. You learn the most from the first crossword puzzle you solve, she says.

"Once you've done them for a while, you need to move to different types of puzzles."

Not just any mental activity will do, say experts. It must be novel and challenging to create new bridges between brain cells, which strengthens memory.