Brain Fitness Becomes a Hot Industry

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Brain Fitness Becomes a Hot Industry

As Baby Boomers age, their fear of losing cognitive function is spawning a new industry. More than 26 million people around the globe already have Alzheimer's, according to the Alzheimer's Association. And, that number is expected to multiply four-fold by mid-century.1 For people between 75 and 84, the chances of contracting that disease are now one in five. For those over 85, the number jumps to almost one in two.

This amounts to a genuine crisis in health care, perhaps the greatest of the 21st century, as was made clear at the International Conference on Prevention of Dementia, held by the Alzheimer's Association last June in Washington, D.C.

What can be done about it?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer's Association, including an international consortium of scientists at the conference, issued a report called The Healthy Brain Initiative: A National Public Health Road Map to Maintaining Cognitive Health.2 Its aim is to "maintain or improve the cognitive performance of all adults." And the key lies in a field of study known as brain plasticity.

Neurologists and neuroscientists used to believe that after childhood, the brain became a fixed and rigid structure in which no significant changes could take place. But in recent decades, important advances have been made in the ability of scientists to actually see what the brain is doing, through technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging. It turns out that the brain does not stop changing. It maintains its plasticity throughout life.

The key to keeping the brain young is to force it to make dramatic changes. That means constantly challenging the brain to do what is difficult and new. A recent review of such challenges published in the Saturday Evening Post listed activities ranging from working puzzles to playing Mah-Jongg.3 The reason that such seemingly mundane activities can stave off Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia lies in the way the brain functions normally.

The brain is essentially an organ of adaptation. It helps us — and all animals — to devise strategies for survival. As the environment changes, a rigid brain would be a severe disadvantage. A flexible brain that can change is one that will find a new and winning strategy.

For example, the visual cortex is an area of the brain that processes information taken in through

the eyes. If a person goes blind and then learns Braille, the visual cortex is rapidly switched over to processing information from the fingertips — sometimes beginning within days...

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