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Use it or lose it
Keeping your brain in shape


June 2016

Research into brain plasticity has discovered that human brains continue to make new neurons in response to mental activity, regardless of age. Some decline in cognitive function is reversible — a reassurance worth noting for those who believe forgetfulness is an unavoidable symptom of aging.

Basically, the brain acts like our muscles; it needs to be kept in shape. Learning a new task like reading or how to drive a car requires significant new wiring in the brain, a process that keeps things fresh and new. The brain is constructed to be stimulated and challenged, to think. By our 40s, however, we’ve passed from a state of learning new abilities (and making new wiring) to simply putting them to use.

Even worse, we allow many of those tasks to be done for us — think calculators, personal agendas and GPS. Some days, the most mentally stimulating thing that happens is trying to find our car keys or discovering a Kardashian is filing for divorce. We otherwise go through life without really being consciously engaged in the things we’re doing.

The theory is called "use it or lose it," and it isn’t new. What is new, though, is how it is being put to use at elderly care facilities. Bridget McNair, director of recreation therapy at Milwaukee Catholic Home, says its facilities offer many different forms of cognitive programming with a wide variety of options to keep residents mentally stimulated. "Our Lifelong Learning program brings in different experts to share information and education," she says. "(They include) the Honor Flight, the Milwaukee Ballet Company, athletes and (members of) the Milwaukee Police and Fire departments, to name a few. This program also helps us keep in touch with the community beyond our walls. (We also use) the iN2L, a large computerized touch screen system that has many different options for cognitive games, to explore the world of travel."

Tracey Stroeh, director of marketing and communications at Cedar Community, points to information presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2014. A two-year clinical trial of older adults at risk for cognitive impairment showed that a combination of physical activity, nutritional guidance, cognitive training, social activities and management of heart-health risk factors slowed cognitive decline. Basically, along with "use it or lose it," researchers found that what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain because it enhances blood flow. "As a result, our programs are comprehensive, including Mediterranean heart-healthy diets, indoor and outdoor exercise and stimulating games like beach ball volleyball, bean bag tosses and floor darts for hand-eye coordination," says Stroeh. "We have ‘pet the pooch,’ gardening and walking, listening to and making music, art projects and lots of outings — to the zoo, bowling, pontooning on Big Cedar Lake, and visiting local restaurants. We’ve found that depression and boredom can also lead to memory lapses. If (residents) are not engaged in what’s happening, it’s hard to remember it. These issues can be mitigated with a robust activity program. ... We may not be able to stop the aging process, but we can do our best and have fun along the way." m



This story ran in the June 2016 issue of: