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Use it or lose it!

"My brain? That's my second favourite organ!"

Woody Allen

You've probably heard the phrase 'use it or lose it!' along with the idea that exercising your mind might help keep it healthy and stave off dementia. But is there any evidence that this works?

In 2002, Chicago researchers published a study involving 700 dementia-free elderly subjects who were followed for more than four years. They concluded that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that engaging in stimulating everyday cognitive activities such as reading, solving crossword puzzles, visiting museums and playing card games corresponded with a significantly reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease. One study doesn't tell the whole story and the factors involved in developing dementia are complex and multi-faceted but it certainly gives support to the idea that our brains can be exercised to help improve or tone up the way we think and ultimately, the way we remember.

Brain cells - new for old?

Does the brain continue to create new cells (neurons) for learning new information throughout our lives? Or, is it just during the period of infancy that this happens after which it's downhill all the way? For decades it was thought impossible for the adult brain to create new cells. In fact we lose thousands of them every day - a few tens of millions in a lifetime. We can afford it - after all there are around 100 billion neurons and a trillion or so glial (support) cells in our brains.

But in 1960s, evidence began to emerge from the research of Joseph Altman at MIT of the appearance of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the brains of adult rats - specifically in an area called the hippocampus which you can read about on other pages on this site. Amazingly, this finding was largely ignored until more than twenty years later, when a neuroscientist at New York University called Fernando Nottebohm discovered that neurogenesis was occurring in the song birds that he studied. Now research has confirmed neurogenesis takes place in lots of animals including humans and not just in one area of the brain (the hippocampus) but also in parts of the cortex. This discovery has transformed our understanding of the brain and given hope in particular, to researchers working in the field of neurodegenerative disease.

YOUR COMMENT

Martin
I was concerned that i may have a memory problem as i can't recall simple things minutes after happening. So much so that my wife and family normally joke about telling me things. However i'm in training, and i remember vividly things that facinate me or that hold a particular intererst for me, both in the trainig domain or scientific arena. I asked a doctor friend if i had a problem and he asked me some simple questions utilising my recall eg. NI number, phone numbers etc. and some very recent memories. His conclusion was my memory was no different to the average person. However he did say it was very selective and he felt if the memory was required by my subconcious then it would be stored, however if i felt it trivial or of no importance i forgot it.

cielo portas
english is not my primary language so i hope you understand my father is ninety and has amnesia, since he was 80. He worked hard until this age. He is a lawyer and has always been a very intellectual man. I live far from him, in a dfferent country. every year when i visit, he is a little more "away". Last year he didnt recognize me or my sisters, this year, he forgot his name if yu say his first name he can complete it with his last name but he can't answer if you ask what his name is He has a scrable game. we used to play 7 years ago and he seemed to like it now the board lost it's meaning for him but I found that if I write some simple phrases, he can copy them with the scrable letters, I also made him copy from big newspaper titles.He has a good time. he doesnt get sleepy (this is important to protect his night sleep and the night sleep of the person talking care of him. The other thing i found out, is that if I spend two consecutive hours with him, playing this word game, he recovers some memory and gets entusiastic. He lost some of the game memory on the other day, but he always have a little more reserved. I mean that he keeps on adding a little even though he keeps on losing. always talking about the new made scrable game. amnesia respond very well to love and care. I don't know if at this stage, te recuperationor rehabilitation of memory is good for the extra old of for us, their relatives (always hoping that they finally recognize us, because of love and because they take a lot of information away from us for ever. the other thing that works for us are family-friends photographs. I ID them putting little pieces of masking tape near the faces in the photographs and he love to recognize them and asked WHERE IS HE/SHE his doctor recommends that we must explain him that his parents are dead (he asked a lot about them, wants to live the door unlocked for his father to return "from work". this gives hime desperation every time so i lye. I say they are in coronel suarez (the place where they used to live. He is at home. At the house that has been his for the last 15 years. For me is very rewarding and helps cope with the hurt-mind ache that you feel when you see your love ones "far away" I bought three scrables so we have more letters. he hates when he can't find some letter. you can try that with paper and a fat marker. he is very meticoulous and he wants to see the line of the letters clean and neat (not one up and the other downI would love to have a better vocabulary to communicate this. It's just that I was so very happy when i found this place that i wanted to write to you asap with no time for someone to correct me. I also have some more trricks that work for us if someone in this situation wants to contact me . I live in miami,fl, usa.

Deni Simon
I'm 55 and do a lot of computer file editing, archiving, transferring and backing up, sometimes at the same time. I found that I was having trouble remembering ID tag info for the few seconds it takes to open a file until I could look it up in a data base. I have found that encouraging myself to multitask is helping with short term memory retention. I have to use all sorts of mental tricks to stay focused, such as vocalising the steps in a chain as I do them, but I'm getting better at doing several things at once without becoming too distracted.

Janet Howd
Our society creates the ideal conditions for memory loss by ignoring and dismissing people in old age. We venerate old objects, buildings, wines, books, gardens trees even turtles yet not ourselves. If a person's later years are to be ignored why strive for longevity. How stupid we are not to realise that futility is breeding the imbecility we all fear. Given a purpose in life then memory related illnesses will simply disappear.

Peter Barclay
During a Heart Attack on the 8 January 06 I had a Stroke that has left with some brain damage. So many have given me so much help is amasing. I am now starting to remember Your program is so much help Thank you!

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