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It’s time to exercise your memory, with brain games

9 April 2012 4,066 views
By Rita Watson, MPH
From brain training games to mindful listening taught by Rebecca Shafir, 
Hallowell Center, enhancing short and long-term memory improves quality of life.

As a society, our connections and interconnections through social media and technology are cramming vast amounts of information into our brains. When forgetfulness sets in, at first we dismiss it as “brain overload.” Then one day we feel as if our brain is in tangles. The good news is that there are programs to help keep the brain fit.

Just as video games set the stage for eye-hand coordination skills that helped physicians master minimally invasive surgeries, computer programs are helping us take control of cognitive abilities.

Chilling research reported in January’s British Medical Journal says that memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s may be detectable as early as age 45. The study was conducted at the Center for Research in Epidemiology & Population Health at the Paul-Brousse Hospital in Paris.

Brain training games

What can be done to promote optimal cognitive aging? Despite what we have heard about word search games and crossword puzzles, these can be of limited value. Once a particular set of crossword patterns and word association skills are mastered, the brain is no longer as excited as it was when first challenged. Computerized cognitive stimulation exercises allow administration of activities that challenge multiple cognitive faculties. Furthermore, the difficulty of the challenge can be dynamically matched to the user’s level of functioning.

Physical exercise, a known cognitive enhancer, is given an extra boost when computerized cognitive games are added. A February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported clinical trial results on exergaming that enhanced stationary cycling by incorporating video scenery and competitors. The cognitive benefit of this combination exceeded that of cycling alone.

Today a popular iPhone app called Brain Trainer by Lumosity.com   is available for about $50 with initial free sessions. Brain Trainer is a web-based program that includes exercises for memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem-solving which take about 5-10 minutes per day.

Similar software packages include Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! by Nintendo, based on the work of neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, a brain imaging expert. Also, Posit Science’s Brain Fitness and other software programs are designed to improve visual, auditory and driving skills. Another sophisticated program is Cogmed, which combines computer sessions with coaching by a trained professional and is designed to enhance working memory.

Mindful listening, Rebecca Shafir

Mindful listening is also gaining in popularity and requires no books and no games. It is an approach that “recruits much of our brain power, auditory and visual processing centers as well as attention and memory,” says Rebecca Shafir, author of “The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction.”

Shafir, a clinician at the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Mass., and Boston Brain Fitness, added, “It requires one to maintain alertness and attention so that one has a better chance of remembering a conversation.”

In our fast paced world, finding a method that enables you to remember both short and long-term, can mean more years of joy rather than the confusion that marks clinical dementia.

Reprinted with permission, Monday, April 2, 2012, The Providence Journal

Rita Watson, MPH, is a regular contributor to the Journal.

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