The Author

Site search



Main menu:

H.E.L.P. Links


Top Posts

Keeping Minds Sharp

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: Do you have any suggestions on how to find a tutor to help seniors keep their minds sharp?  I am looking for a tutor that would come to my home and work with a senior on a weekly basis – on reading, comprehension, math and other related areas.  We keep reading and hearing how important it is to learn new things to keep the mind active.  Thanks for your help.

Answer: Yes, it is important to keep our brains challenged and engaged.  Extensive research backs up the notion of “use it or lose it.”

Your idea to have a brain-fitness tutor is terrific.  We have many examples of older adults tutoring children.  Why not have tutors for older adults in their home wanting to improve their brain health.  You may be launching a new specialty in aging.

Let’s begin with your question of finding a tutor. One option is to contact some of the universities that specialize in gerontology or geriatrics.

Graduate students often focus on cognition and aging and might be interested in becoming adult tutors, perhaps using the experience as an internship.   Consider contacting UCLA’s Center on Aging, USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center and California State Universities in Fullerton, Long Beach and Northridge for possible interns or graduate students.

A tutor might consider using the book “The Memory Prescription” (Hyperion, 2004) by Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging.  The chapter on “Pump Up Your Mental Aerobics” provides some useful mental exercises that a home tutor could use, depending on the cognitive abilities of the older adult.

Let’s expand our conversation and discuss several myths about brain health. In the book “The Mature Mind:  The Positive Power of the Aging Brain” (Basic Books, 2005), the late researcher and author Dr. Gene Cohen, former director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, challenges conventional thinking about the aging brain.

  • The brain cannot grow new brain cells.
  • Older adults cannot learn as well as young people.
  • The connection between neurons is relatively fixed throughout life.
  • Intelligence depends on the number of neurons you have and how fast these neurons work.

These statements are false.

For many years, we assumed that cognitive abilities would decline because of our age.  It was part of the thinking,  “What do you expect? You’re getting older.”Such an assumption can be traced to leaders in the field of medicine, psychoanalysis and psychology.

In 1905, Dr. William Osler of Johns Hopkins University stated in his farewell address that men over 60 were completely useless because of their inelastic minds.  The same terms was used by Sigmund Freud in his writing that old people could not be educated because of their “inelastic minds.”  And Jean Piaget, the noted developmental psychologist, believed that development stopped in young adulthood and was followed by a slow and steady decline.

Cohen wrote, “The brain is far more flexible and adaptable than once thought.”  It can retain its capacity to form new memories, which means it makes new connections between brain cells.  And memory is required in that learning process.

The astounding news is that we can grow new brain cells.  Equally astounding is the finding that learning plays a big role.  According to Cohen, just the process of learning causes physical changes in the brain.  Here is how it works:

When our minds are challenged, our neurons (brain cells) sprout new branch-like extensions, called dendrites.  When these dendrites come in contact with one another, they form synapses.  The more dendrites our brain makes, the easier it is for brain cells to communicate with one another.  All of this promotes the exchange of new information and helps in forming new ideas.

The number, density and length of the dendrites reach their greatest levels from our early 50s to our late 70s.

Certain behaviors can limit our brain potential.  You probably can guess what they are.  They include stress, excessive alcohol or drug use, inactivity, smoking, obesity, malnourishment and being social isolation.

Here is some information on some brain fitness programs developed by companies in the U.S. and abroad.   It is offered as information rather than an endorsement:

Posit Science: Founded in 2005, this San Francisco company bases its program on the work of more than50 scientists in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.   Its computer-based brain fitness program targets neurological processes necessary for accurate listening, effective thinking and strong memory.

The program consists of six core exercises that encourage faster sound processing to the brain; gives the brain practice distinguishing similar sounds; aim to improve memory; push the brain to remember information in order; work on short-term memory and promote remembering details.

Posit Science also has a DriveSharp program designed to help older people drive more safely, with exercises that include improving focus, reaction time and memory.

CogniFit: Established in Israel in 1999, this company offers a computer-training program called CognitFit Personal Coach.   The program, based on 30 years of scientific research, consists of a base-line assessment, results analysis and individualized training components designed to provide improvement where needed.

Fourteen cognitive abilities are identified as essential for daily functioning.  Among them are reaction time, short-term memory and special perception.  CogniFit also has a Senior Driving Program designed to help people maintain their driving skills as they age, focusing on 10 cognitive abilities related to driving.

NeoCORTA: Founded n 2008 in Washington, D.C.,  this company has a mission to empower adult of all ages to optimize their brain fitness. The program is based on 200 scientific studies. Adults answer a brain fitness questionnaire measuring 32 key areas related to cognition, emotion, lifestyle and behaviors, psychosocial factors, medical status and functional status. Results are sent to NeoCORTA, where they are analyzed.

Based on those results, a Personal Brain Fitness Report is created, reviewed by a clinician (board certified in neurology and psychiatry), and a personalized action plan is developed.

Brain Age: This Nintendo was inspired by the work of prominent Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima.  It is based on solving simple math problems, counting currency and unscrambling letters on the Nintendo DS touch screen.  (You have to purchase the touch screen and game.)

Participants take a series of tests,  with the score determining brain age; activities are provided and progression is tracked.

Lumosity’s Brain Games: These games focus on speed, memory, attention and flexibility, with catchy game titles such as Birdwatching, Raindrops, Lost in Migration and Word Bubbles.  The program offers assessments and a brain profile.

How does one choose a computer-based brain fitness program?    Forbes Magazine, published this list of 10 questions to ask, courtesy of SharpBrains, a marketing and research firm within the brain fitness industry:

  • Are scientists, ideally neurologists, behind the program?
  • What peer-reviewed research supports the program?
  • Is there a scientific advisory board listed on the company’s Web site?
  • What are the specific benefits claimed for those who use the program?
  • Does the program indicate what part of the brain is exercised and what cognitive function it can improve?
  • Is it a structured program with guidance on how many hours and days per week to use it?
  • Do the exercises in the program teach me something new?
  • Does the program challenge me so it’s never too easy and keeps me interested?
  • Does the program fit my personal goals?
  • Am I ready and willing to do the program, or would it be too stressful?

Thank you for your good question about brain health.   Maintaining and improving our cognitive abilities does not exclusively depend on computer exercises and games.  To increase the chances of being all we can be — throughout our lifetime — we need to be intellectually engaged, physically active and maintain a healthy diet.  It’s a formula that works!

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All Rights Reserved.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button