Our brains need a well-rounded workout just like our bodies! We caught up with psychologist and brain health specialist Tonia Vojtkofsky, to find out how we can improve memory, ward off brain-ageing and whether brain puzzles can really prevent dementia
Tonia Vojtkofsky is an expert in brain health. Research has shown that nutrition, exercise and being social all have benefits, but brain exercise is something most of us overlook. Vojkofsky has incorporated various elements known to tune up the brain in her workouts. Her new book Keep Your Brain Stronger for Longer, is packed with puzzles and memory challenges, to help you give your brain the ultimate workout. We asked her what we need to be doing to keep our noggin on top form.
Farhana Gani: The population is getting older and medical advances mean that we’re living longer. If our brain health can’t keep up, how will society cope?
Tonia Vojtkofsky: I believe that our brain health can keep up with the increased life-span, but it is going to take a change in our lifestyle. The fields of neuroscience and epidemiological research show that those who live healthier lifestyles including good nutrition, physical exercise, social and emotional health, and have challenged their brains more throughout their life have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
FG: Are our brains equipped for a longer life? There’s so much more to remember for starters!
TV: Age is the number one risk factor when it comes to brain health. The older we get, the higher our risk. So in some respects, no our brains are not equipped for a longer life. Yet with the exciting medical advances being made in neuroscience, I believe that we will be able to catch up with our increasing life-span and to remember more and more.
Read more: The beautiful life of your brain
FG: What are the most exciting medical advances to make older brains stronger?
TV: The FINGER study (Ngandu et al., 2015) is a first of its kind research study targeting factors associated with dementia risk in order to prevent cognitive decline in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). It focuses on factors such as diet, exercise, cognitive training, and vascular health.
The results of the first 2 years were so promising that they received another 5 years of funding. By 2020 we will know if these lifestyle factors can delay the onset of dementia and keep the brain stronger for longer.
FG: Does research prove that mental exercises can improve brain health?
TV: Numerous studies show that immediately after exercising a specific cognitive ability, that ability is stronger. This is an obvious short-term benefit, but what the field is most interested in are the long-term benefits. The important question is: Does cognitive exercise make a difference in the long run? One of the best longitudinal studies we have to date is the ACTIVE study (Rebok et al., 2014). It has shown the benefits of cognitive exercise lasting over 10 years.
Read more: Remedies and treatments for memory problems
FG: Forgetfulness and memory loss are the biggest concerns amongst older people. Can puzzles help?
TV: Timing is everything! It depends on whether the individual already has a degenerative disease process, such as Alzheimer’s, in the brain, which can start over 15 years before any symptoms manifest. If the person has a disease process in the brain, it will limit the benefits of cognitive exercises, but if not, then the individual should be able to increase their memory capacity and decrease forgetfulness. The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome! So my advice would be start now.
FG: Can puzzles really keep brain degenerative conditions like Dementia at bay?
TV: We don’t know yet for sure. At this time, there is conflicting evidence. We need more longitudinal, strong methodology studies before we will know.
Read more: 8 ways to keep dementia at bay
FG: What types of puzzles in particular are good for brain stimulation?
TV: Puzzles that are challenging and exercise a variety of cognitive abilities, not just one. If a task is easy for you, it does not strengthen the brain, but if it is too difficult, we get frustrated and give up. Therefore the key is to find tasks that are within your personal threshold of difficult: not too easy, and not too hard.
It’s also important to exercise all of our cognitive abilities because they are all connected and dependent on each other. For example, if you only did language exercises, it would not be as beneficial as if you did exercises that targeted memory, reasoning, attention, visual-spatial skill and processing speed.
FG: I know many elderly people who enjoy doing the daily crossword? That’s healthy, isn’t it?
TV: My question for them would be: is it easy and is it all you do? If it is easy for them, then it is not strengthening the brain enough. My suggestion would be continue the crosswords, but add in Sudoku/Rebus puzzles too!
FG: Describe your book for us
TV: Keep Your Brain Stronger for Longer is a brain fitness activity book specifically designed to help exercise the brain in a comprehensive way. It includes exercises that target various cognitive abilities such as memory, language, reasoning, visual-spatial skill, and processing speed.
Just like the body, the brain needs a well-rounded workout. In devising a physical exercise regime for instance, you wouldn’t just do bicep curls. It’s the same for the brain focusing on different areas and different cognitive abilities will produce the best result.
FG: How do the different types of puzzles work the brain?
TV: The neuroscience behind exercising the brain is based on the concept of neuroplasticity, which means that we can grow and strengthen brain neurons. Whenever we learn something new or challenge our brain, we create or strengthen a neural connection.
FG: Give us a prescription—how many a day and for how long?
TV: In order for cognitive exercise to really make a difference in your brain health, it must become a regular part of your life. I would suggest a minimum of 3 hours per week of challenging cognitive exercises. It sounds daunting, but cognitive exercise can include anything from checking out your local bingo hall or attempting the cryptic crossword for once. Split the time up into shorter segments, but every little helps!
FG: Learning a language is thought to help brain health, too. How is this linked with puzzle solving?
TV: This is because learning a language is so difficult; it greatly strengthens the brain. Well, puzzle solving can be just as difficult, and just as beneficial.
FG: What other ways are there of keeping the brain healthier for longer?
TV: One of the modifiable risk factors for brain health is socialization. Research shows that people who are more socially engaged do better cognitively as they age. So getting out of the house and engaging in social activities is a great way to stimulate the brain as we age.
FG: What are your top five brain health tips you would give to your grandparents?
TV: My tips are taken directly from the literature on brain health:
1. Good nutrition
2. Regular physical exercise
3. Regular brain exercise
5. Manage stress and depression
Keep Your Brain Strong for Longer by Tonia Vojkofsky is published by Short Books, £9.99
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