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Use your brain or lose it, experts say

Even if you've spent the last few weeks on the couch watching "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and chugging eggnog, you're better off than Americans were a generation ago.

At least you know better. The message that exercise and diet matters has gotten through, even if it's ignored at times.

Now, health experts are trying to get Americans to think about their brains. A massive federal study reported recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association offers hard evidence that just like exercising your heart, exercising your brain will help the average person live a longer, fuller life.

The study followed more than 2,800 seniors over five years. Researchers drilled separate groups on reasoning, memory exercises and speed of recognition. They concluded that as little as 10 hours of reasoning exercises over the five years could extend the mental sharpness of seniors for years.

The memory exercises and speed-of-recognition groups didn't see much of a benefit, but those asked to do brain training -- like figuring out the key to a series of letters or numbers -- reported less difficulty with daily tasks. With some refresher sessions, the positive effects were apparent even after five years, researchers found.

If you're not sure it's worth the effort, consider this: Those years may come at a time when being able to pay bills, follow driving directions and follow medical prescriptions can spell the difference between independent living and moving into an assisted care facility.

The exercises can't prevent Alzheimer's disease, but they can earn people more years of normal life, said Michael Dollard, the education and training coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association of Western New York. The study is the most definitive proof in a decade of increasing attention on the benefits of mental workouts.

"We have boatloads of studies that show the people who retire and don't pursue outside interests, who just hang around and watch TV, have a higher incidence" of Alzheimer's and other memory problems, Dollard said. "It really does make a difference if you use your mind."

Challenging your mind doesn't have to involve official classes, Dollard said. It can include modest steps as simple as doing crosswords or jigsaw puzzles, playing cards or anything that gets you interacting with people.

"Simple changes that can yield a benefit," he said. "Simply tasting a new food, driving a new way to work, or changing the location of your wastebasket." All of those things "can give your brain a different mental image of your environment, and because your brain has to store those different things, that can be helpful."

Dollard said it was important to note that numerous physical health indicators have also been linked to memory problems. Chronic high blood pressure, smoking and obesity have all been linked to memory problems, he said. Left unmanaged diabetes can increase the chance of Alzheimer's by 65 percent, Dollard said.

Some people think that because Alzheimer's disease runs in their family, there's no point in exercising their brain, but Helen Wright doesn't buy it. Her mother and her grandmother both ended up with memory issues before they died. But the 66-year-old former court stenographer, who retired in 1999, has embraced a life of volunteering and church work that helps keep her vital.

The way people think about Alzheimer's and brain debility has changed during her lifetime, Wright said.

"It used to be they just said it was senility, old age. It was just something everybody got." When her mother started to show symptoms, she said, she didn't know that there was an Alzheimer's Association that could offer insight and support.

Now she knows better, Wright said. Working in a variety of roles in the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church community in Buffalo has her meeting a variety of challenges and people every week. The combination of social contact and the mental work demanded by such a changing environment is a great prescription for a healthy brain, experts say.

As time goes on, though, the good news on brain exercise and mental health is getting through, Wright said. "People are more aware that there are things we can do about it," she said, "and we're just trying to get the word out as best as we can."

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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>Brain challenges

Here are some simple aids for exercising your brain, keeping in mind that the key is variety:

* Dancing, playing a musical instrument

* Sudoku, Crossword or other word puzzles

* Jigsaw puzzles or other spatial reasoning games

* Take a different route when driving or walking to a familiar place

* Play cards, especially with other people

* Play board games

* Video games -- seriously

The Alzheimer's Association of Western New York offers classes as part of its Memory Wellness Initiative. For info call 626-0600.

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