recipe-for-brain-health-activitiesThe makers of the much-touted online brain game Lumosity have been fined by the Federal Trade Commission to settle allegations it “deceived consumers with unfounded claims” in its advertising. According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

So, like a drug trial that’s reached a dead end, online brain games may not be the panacea for dementia that many had hoped they would be.

Let’s be clear: there is currently no way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. However, actions can be taken that have been shown, via research, to reduce the risk of developing dementia, many of which are just good common sense.

So, now that you have to cancel your subscription to Lumosity, what CAN you do?

As you strategize on the best activities to maintain your brain health, consider adding the following “ingredients” into the mix. Aim for three ingredients in any activity that you choose.

  1. Socializing. A lack of social relationships is as a strong risk factor for mortality as are smoking, obesity or lack of physical activity . Opt for activities that can be done in a group, as you’ll derive benefit from both the activity itself AND the social interaction.
  2. Passion and purpose. Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Science backs up the idea that being passionate about something, and having activities that are in line with your passion, protects us physiologically. Richard Taylor, PhD, who recently passed away from cancer, wrote a book about how he found purpose in life after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease sidelined him, and how finding purpose saved him. Reading his book Alzheimer’s from the Inside Out not only taught me much about one person’s lived experience of dementia, but set me on my own path of finding purpose and living a life with passion.
  3. A goal. You may have yet to find your passion, but you can set some goals so that you are working towards something, and eventually you’ll find purpose and meaning in reaching these goals. Aim for personal goals (a specific milestone for learning a new language, for example, or a distance to walk or run) and group goals or projects that you are working towards as part of a collective.
  4. Physical Activity. According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada’s Heads Up for Healthy Brains brochure, “evidence suggests that healthy lifestyles help the brain maintain connections and even build new ones.” Find creative ways to add physical activity to what you already do, for example, by walking to destinations you would normally drive to, or doing more housework. Check with your physician before engaging in any exercise program!
  5. It’s new for you. Understand that everything we do — every little action — involves our brains. Getting a glass of water. Sweeping the floor. Brushing your hair. Sending an email. Writing a report. Feeding the dog. Everything. But many actions become repetitive. Like a well-worn path between the houses of two best friends, the brain lays down tracks, and activities become “mindless.” But activities engage multiple areas of the brain. Take on something new and lay down some new tracks. By the way, this can be something as simple as taking a new route to work, or walking the dog in the opposite direction of your usual route.
Once you get going, it becomes easier to find activities that combine three or more of the above ingredients. Here are some ideas:
  • Take up a new hobby (something new); let’s use furniture refinishing as an example. Take a group class (social) in furniture refinishing at your local community college. Then volunteer to refinish old discarded furniture for a local women’s shelter (purpose, passion, goal).
  • Learn French (something new). I use DuoLingo online. It’s fun and free. I’m also joining a local French conversation club that meets weekly (social). And next time I go to Paris, I want to be able to order my meals en français (goal, passion).
  • Take a dance class. You already dance, so learn a new style of dancing (something new). Go for the group lessons (social). The dance classes are physical activity, and because you enter the local “Dancing with the Stars” competition in three months, you’ve got a goal as well.
  • Get a dog. Join a dog obedience class (social, goal). Go to the dog park, not so your dog can be social, but so you can. Commit to regular daily walks (physical activity). Get your dog trained to be a pet therapy dog and take him to the local memory care home (purpose, social).
  • Join a theatre group (new, social). Walk to the practices rather than drive (physical activity). Just getting through opening night goes along way towards reaching your goal of not fainting on stage!
  • Start a business. Seniorpreneurship — seniors starting businesses — is on the rise, out of financial necessity and a desire to avoid a boring retirement. Your new business can allow you to follow your passion, involves a ton of goal setting, and can definitely be “something new” for you. I’m a huge believer in collaborative workspaces such as Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation, and if you can find one of these collaborative workspaces to park your laptop, you’ll be social as well.
  • Brain games. Surprised to see that here? By all means, continue to play games, but recognize that you don’t need a special program to do this and there are no magic bullets in the gaming world to prevent dementia. You may be better off asking your children or grandchildren to teach you how to play Assassin’s Creed; these games are beyond challenging, involving on-the-fly decisions and extreme hand-eye coordination, plus a good amount of keeping track of details and some planning and goal setting. Plus you have the added advantage of social interaction with your kids. Perhaps someone can come up with a video game that incorporates all the elements of the popular video games but would appeal to those of us who don’t fancy going around shooting people or stealing cars?
I’m no doctor — in fact, if you are concerned about your cognitive health, go see your doctor promptly — but here are some other considerations about brain health:
  • A review of your medications is prudent. As we age, we tend to see multiple physicians who prescribe multiple medications and who don’t talk to each other to confirm what medications you’re already taking. Unless you have a doctor or pharmacist who is on the ball, it may be years since you’ve had a full review of your medications, side effects, and impact of drug interactions. Your medications may affect your cognitive abilities, particularly if you are on pain killers, anti-anxiety medications, sleeping pills, anti-depressants, or even antihistamines. Indeed, warnings have been issued about anti-anxiety drugs causing cognitive impairment. This article references studies that have been done into numerous medications and cognitive impairment. However, do not stop taking any of your medications before seeing your primary care physician to review your medications.
  • Get more sleep, eat better, and reduce your stress levels. Refer to the Alzheimer Society of Canada’s Heads Up for Healthy Brains brochure for more ideas. Check out the cookbook MINDfull: Recipes for Brain Health, which combines all the research on diet and brain health with tasty recipes.
Our brains are complex, some say the most complex machine that ever existed, and we do not yet understand how it works. To appreciate the complexity of the brain and its place in the ecosystem that is our body, read the books by Dr. Norman Doidge — The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing. However, it’s safe to say that the brain can be challenged in many ways, and taking initiative, planning your activities, researching a program for yourself, making the phone call or writing the email to get more information, visiting a centre where programs are being held — these are all forms of brain activity that also give you a sense of purpose and control over your life. Please don’t opt for the easy way out, such as purchasing a Lumosity-type game and passively doing the exercises every day. Effort and initiative also equal brain activity, and there are many ways to engage your brain.
*If you’re still not convinced that brain games don’t help, an investigation last year by CBC’s Marketplace reveals that brain training games such as Lumosity may not make your brain perform better in everyday life. Learn more here.