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Cognitive Maintenance
Mental Fitness and Exercises for the Brain
Jan, 2011, by The Critical Thinking Co.™ Staff

Maintaining Cognitive Health
The process of deliberately and regularly employing mental exercises and other lifestyle modifications to enhance cognitive efficiency is known as cognitive maintenance. The term cognitive function is used to describe the scope of mental capabilities resulting from the interaction of certain thought processes within the cognitive domain, including: perception, memory, intuition, reasoning, awareness, judgment, attention, spatial acuity and language. The contribution to cognitive function from each of these thought processes is subject to change over the course of a person’s lifetime. Although the effects of these changes are rarely beneficial, the good news is that age-related progressive decline in mental functioning is not inevitable. But we have to be proactive! In other words, there are ways for adults to Empower the Mind!

Dementia vs. Normal Aging
The purpose of this article is to explore methods and techniques helpful in combating cognitive decline, regardless of its cause. However, it’s still important to understand the differences between cognitive impairment resulting from the normal aging process and that caused by injury or disease. Any loss in cognitive function that challenges a person’s independence by significantly reducing his or her ability to perform daily activities is known as dementia. Many of us have seen dementia firsthand as we’ve watched an older relative or family friend struggle with its effects. According to The Merck Manuals cognitive impairment will affect about 5% of those aged 65 to 74 and 40% of those over 85. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that Alzheimer’s is the 7th leading cause of death with approximately 5.3 million people affected. However, as a result of the normal aging process, even otherwise healthy older adults may experience some degree of cognitive impairment. Although this reduced mental ability can be problematic at times, it is not necessarily considered dementia. The American Medical Association gives examples of how to distinguish typical aging from dementia. For example, they describe the sometimes-subtle difference between the occasional word-finding difficulty and the complete inability to recall the instance when the memory loss was first noticed. Another example describes the distinction between the person who, through frustration, may be unwilling to learn how to operate new appliances and the individual who has simply become unable to learn new devices.

Causes of Dementia
While many individual reasons for dementia have been identified, it’s important to note that the condition is usually exacerbated by the interaction of multiple factors apparent in a given individual. In no particular order, examples include:

Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson’s
Medical Conditions
Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Diabetes and Stroke
Lifestyle Choices
Poor Nutrition, Smoking, Alcohol Intake and Lack of Exercise
Traumatic Injuries
Falls and Accidents
Cancer Treatments
Chemotherapy and Radiation

Healthy Aging Tips
As stated earlier, cognitive maintenance is a proactive process that utilizes a variety of methods to stave off deterioration of cognitive function. These methods address our lifestyles according to three interacting categories: physical, psychological and mental. We say "interacting" because a modification in one area will usually have ramifications in another. For example, a successfully implemented campaign to reduce stress (psychological) is expected have a positive effect on hypertension (physical).

Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body
The Franklin Institute describes how movement and physical activity increase both breathing and heart rate, which in turn, enhances blood flow to all parts of the body, including the brain. Greater blood flow to the brain equates to increased nutrient and oxygen levels as well as more efficient waste removal. It seems exercise really is a good way to “jump-start the brain."

Proper treatment of certain medical conditions is essential to maintaining cognitive function. For example, untreated vascular disease is more likely to result in stroke – and, of course, stroke is one of the leading causes of cognitive impairment. Other conditions that require ongoing consideration include: high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, limitation of alcohol, chronic inflammation and hormone imbalances, (e.g. thyroid).

Emotional Well-Being
Certain psychological factors, such as: stress, worry, anxiety and depression, can develop in the person who realizes a cognitive slowdown is occurring. One technique, helpful in minimizing these unwanted emotional factors, is to arrange for participation in some type of social network. The Memory and Aging Center at UC San Francisco describes howsocial support networks allow aging people the opportunity to share their challenges and experiences with others of similar age. Such a situation provides validation for their feelings, a sense of fellowship and a more enriched living environment.

Use It or Lose It
While this old adage correctly explains what can happen to cognitive function if the brain is not continually challenged, it doesn’t explore the flip side (i.e. what happens if the brain is exercised regularly). Can a cognitive decline be delayed or possibly even prevented? Or more positively, can cognitive function actually be enhanced in the older adult?

The Oxford Journals reports that brain weight decreases with age starting in early adulthood. They cite a recent large-sample study (n = 1261) that found a 12% decrease in brain weight from ages 25 to 80. For many years, this brain-weight loss was considered irreversible. It was believed adult mammals were incapable of regenerating new brain cells. The long-held theory was that neurogenesis – the birth of neurons – was limited to the fetal (or in utero) developmental stage. However, researchers have found that the human brain continues to create neurons throughout a person’s lifetime in a process known as adult neurogenesis. The Society for Neuroscience reports that thousands of neuronal cells are produced each day in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, a structure involved with learning and memory.

Knowing that the human brain can, to some extent, regenerate itself, we consider whether or not this knowledge can benefit cognitive maintenance. We know the brain produces an overabundance of these cells, as most of them do not survive to be incorporated into a functioning neural pathway. So the question arises, what does cause these newborn brain cells to be integrated into a new or existing neural network?

The Journal of Neuroscience theorizes that the function of adult hippocampalneurogenesis is to enable the brain to accommodate continued bouts of novelty. Scientific American states that learning, particularly learning requiring a great deal of effort, will keep these new neurons alive by enlisting them into service. So, it seems any effort to stretch and expand our existing cognitive bandwidth will effectively result in an increased number of brain cells. And if harnessed properly, these neuronal reinforcements can be expected to slow, and possibly even prevent cognitive decline.
Cognitive Enhancement and Exercises for the Brain
Since cognitive function is a product of several different interacting thought-processes, employing activities specifically designed to stimulate the brain in each of these categories will have a positive effect on overall mental functioning, or brain fitness. Initial recommended areas of focus include: memory, reasoning and language.

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