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In Your Health today, the buzz over energy drinks. But first, whether crossword puzzles can keep the brain nimble. Some people do mental tests and puzzles to help them stay sharp, but as NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains, the scientific proof that mental workouts actually help an aging brain is pretty modest.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Some of the best evidence comes from research that got attention last month. It was part of a study called ACTIVE. Michael Marsiske is one of the principal investigators. He's a psychology professor at the University of Florida.
Professor MICHAEL MARSISKE (Psychology, University of Florida): What we clearly show is that these, quote, "short, mental workouts" improve performance, and that improvement is detectable as much as five years later.
SHAPIRO: About 3,000 volunteers got 10 to 18 hours of instruction in different kinds of thinking skills - memorizing lists, looking for patterns in strings of numbers or letters and visual concentration. The big question was, did brain exercises make people better at all kinds of thinking? Then one group said they thought they were quicker at everyday things like reading instructions on medicine bottles or balancing a checkbook.
It was small, but enough to make Marsiske advise older people, learn a new language. Play a new instrument.
Prof. MARSISKE: The advice that I think people could comfortably take from this is that if they challenge themselves to learn new things - including things that they might perceive as difficult in their later years - many older adults will not only experience benefits from those challenges, but those benefits will be long lasting.
SHAPIRO: But other researchers say there's a better way to look at brain health. Margaret Gatz is a psychologist at the University of Southern California.
Professor MARGARET GATZ (Psychology, University of Southern California): One of the thoughts is that what's good is to enter old age with as good a brain as possible.
SHAPIRO: Scientists use the term, cognitive reserve.
Prof. GATZ: This is referring to the idea that as one becomes older and there's inevitable biological changes to the brain - not just Alzheimer's processes, but other biological changes - is there enough of a cushion that one can keep functioning just fine?
SHAPIRO: In other words, do you already have so much brainpower - or cognitive ability - in reserve that it would just take longer for dementia to wear down your brain? For Gatz, what counts isn't so much the mental challenges you take up in old age - whether you start taking Italian or piano lessons - it's how much you did those things when you were younger.
Gatz's own studies of elderly twins show that ones who had mentally demanding jobs are less likely to get Alzheimer's. There are other things that are good for the brain that people of all ages can do, like eat the right foods. And there's the way Gatz gets to her office everyday.
Prof. GATZ: I try to take the stairs and not the elevator, and practice those incidental physical exercise strategies like that.
SHAPIRO: Physical exercise has been linked to brain health. One recent study found that older people who started aerobic workouts actually increased the volume of their brain matter. So Gatz takes the stairs, walks and bikes. There's one thing in all this research that worries Gatz - that we might start telling people who do get dementia it's their own fault.
Prof. GATZ: I would not want to blame mom that she decided to skip the puzzle page in the paper. No.
SHAPIRO: Researchers are learning more about the complex causes of dementia. But the main risk factors are still the same: old age and genetics. And those can't be changed, no matter how many crossword puzzles you do. Gatz does crossword puzzles. But not to ward off Alzheimer's. She does them for fun.
Prof. GATZ: And while I'm working the puzzle, I'm usually feeling myself entering a state of greater relaxation. So I'm seeing myself as using the crossword puzzle as a tension reducer. Not the can-I-get-it-done-faster?
SHAPIRO: Because other research suggests that avoiding stress and depression also help you maintain a healthy brain.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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