Report: Cognitive-Simulating Activities Good for Your Brain’s Health

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 6, 2017

Don’t expect playing “brain games” to have the long-term brain health benefits oftentimes reported in newspapers. According to a statement released last month by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), the scientific evidence supporting the benefits of “brain games” is at best “weak to non-existent.” But, the researchers say you can engage in many stimulating activities to help sharpen your brain as you age.

GCBH’s latest statement on “Cognitive Stimulating Activities” follows earlier reports issued by this independent organization created by AARP, advocating on behalf of its 38 million members with the support of Age UK, one the United Kingdom largest charities advocating for seniors. Previous areas included: “The Brain Body Connection;” The Brain Sleep Connection;” and “The Brain and Social Connectedness.”

The 25-page GCBH report, released on July 25, says that while many find “brain games” to be fun and engaging activities, oftentimes the claims made by companies touting the game’s cognitive benefits are exaggerated. The researchers noted that there are many ways to support and maintain your memory, reasoning skills, and ability to focus, such as engaging in formal or informal educational activities, learning a new language, engaging in work or leisure activities that are mentally challenging, and connecting socially with others.

Keeping Mentally Sharp

The report debunks “brain health” myths, too. Contrary to the many stories told about the brain as we age, the GCBH finds that a person can learn new things, no matter their age. Getting dementia is not an inevitable consequence of growing older. Older persons can learn a second language. And, people should not expect to forget things as they age.

“The GCBH recommends people incorporate cognitively stimulating activities into their lifestyles to help maintain their brain health as they age,” said Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., GCBH Chair, and Professor of Neurology and Director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “The sooner you start the better, because what you do now may make you less susceptible to disease-related brain changes later in life.”

“We know that the desire to stay mentally sharp is the number one concern for older adults,” said Sarah Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy, and GCBH Executive Director. “Seeking out brain-stimulating activities is a powerful way for a person to positively influence their brain health as they age.”

GCBH pulled 13 independent health care professionals and experts together, who work in the area of brain health-related to cognitive functioning, to examine “Cognitively Stimulating Activities.” This group crafted the report’s consensus statement and recommendations after a close examination of well-designed randomized scientific studies published in peer review journals and studies replicated by other scientists.

Taking Control of Your Brain Health

The report concluded that people have control and influence over their brain changes throughout their lifespan. People can maintain their memory, cognitive thinking, attention and reasoning skills as they age by doing brain-stimulating activities. There is sufficient evidence that brain-stimulating activities are beneficial to staying mentally sharp over your lifespan

The researchers found through their literature review that training on a specific cognitive ability such as memory may improve that specific ability, but scientific evidence suggests you need to continue to apply that training to maintain or improve the ability over time.

The researchers also found that there is insufficient evidence that getting better at “brain games” will improve a person’s overall functioning in everyday life. Maintaining or improving your brain health is tied to the activity being “novel, highly engaging, mentally changing and enjoyable.”

The GCBH report suggested that just by learning a new skill, practicing tai-chi, learning photography, even investigating their family history, you can stimulate their brain and challenge the way they think, improving “brain health.” Also, social engagement and having a purpose in life, like “volunteering as a companion and mentoring others in your community,” can be mentally stimulating and improve your “brain health.”

But, the researchers say don’t forget physical activity, such as “dancing and tennis.” because the mental engagement and physical exercise can mentally benefit you, too.

The GCBH, founded in 2015, is an independent international group of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts working on brain health issues. Convened by AARP with support from Age UK, the goal of the GCBH is to review the current scientific evidence and provide recommendations for people so that they can maintain and improve their brain health.

The full GCBH recommendations can be found here: http://www.globalcouncilonbrainhealth.org.

Yes, routinely challenging your brain can lead to improved “brain health. As the old adage says, “Use it or lose it.”

Report Links Improved Brain Health to Sleep

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 16, 2017

Seven to eight hours of sleep per day may be key to maintaining your brain health as you age, says a newly released consensus report issued the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). The report’s recommendations, hammered out by scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts working on brain health issues at meeting convened by AARP with support of Age UK, in Toronto, Canada in late July 2016 Toronto, translates the scientific research evidence compiled on sleep and brain health into actionable recommendations for the public.

An AARP consumer survey released this month [in conjunction with GCBH’s report] found that 99 percent of age 50-plus respondents believe that their sleep is crucial to brain health, but over four in 10 (43 percent) say they don’t get enough sleep during the night. More than half (about 54 percent) say they tend to wake up too early in the morning and just can’t get back to sleep.

As to sleep habits, the adult respondents say that the most frequently cited activity that they engage in within an hour of bedtime are watching television and browsing the web. One-third keep a phone or electronic device by their bed. Nearly 88 percent of the adults think a cool bedroom temperature is effective in helping people sleep. Yet only two in five (41 percent) keep their room between 60 and 67 degrees. Finally, the most common reason people walk up during the night is to use the bathroom.

“Although sleep problems are a huge issue with older adults, it’s unfortunate the importance of sleep is often not taken seriously by health care professionals,” said Sarah Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy, and GCBH Executive Director. “It’s normal for sleep to change as we age, but poor quality sleep is not normal. Our experts share [in GCBH’s report] the steps people can take to help maintain their brain health through better sleep habits,” said Lock, in a statement released with the report.

Sleep Vital to Brain Health

The new GCBH recommendations cover a wide range of sleep-related issues, including common factors that can disrupt sleep, symptoms of potential sleep disorders, and prescription medications and over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids. The consensus report is jam-packed with tips from experts, from detailing ways to help a person fall asleep or even stay asleep, when to seek professional help for a possible sleep disorder, and the pros and cons of taking a quick nap.

Based on the scientific evidence, the GCBH report says that sleep is vital to brain health, including cognitive function, and sleeping on average 7-8 hours each day is related to better brain and physical health in older people.

The 16-page GCBH consensus report notes that the sleep-wake cycle is influenced by many different factors. A regular sleep-wake schedule is tied to better sleep and better brain health. Regular exposure to light and physical activity supports good sleep, says the report.

According to the GCBH report, people, at any age, can change their behavior to improve their sleep. Persistent, excessive daytime sleepiness is not a normal part of aging. Sleep disorders become more common with age, but can often be successfully treated. People with chronic inadequate sleep are at higher risk for and experience more severe health problems, including dementia, depression, heart disease, obesity and cancer.

“A 2015 consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society mirrors the recently released GCBH report recommending that a person sleep at least 7 hours per night, notes Dr. Katherine M. Sharkey, MD, PhD, FAASM, Associate Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Human Behavior who also serves as Assistant Dean for Women in Medicine and Science. “Seven to eight hours seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ for sleep duration,” she says, noting that several studies indicate that sleeping too little or too much can increase risk of mortality.

More Sleep Not Always Better

Sharkey says that individuals with insomnia sometimes use a strategy of spending more time in bed, with the idea that if they give themselves more opportunity to sleep, they will get more sleep and feel better, but this can actually make sleep worse. “One of the most commonly used behavioral treatments for insomnia is sleep restriction, where patients work with their sleep clinician to decrease their time in bed to a time very close to the actual amount of sleep they are getting,” she says, noting that this deepens their sleep.

Sleep apnea, a medical disorder where the throat closes off during sleep, resulting in decreased oxygen levels, can reduce the quality of sleep and is often associated with stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, says Sharkey. While sleep apnea is often associated with men (24 percent), it also affects nine percent of woman and this gender gap narrows in older age, she notes.

Many older adults who were diagnosed with sleep apnea many years ago often times did not pursue medical treatment because the older CPAP devices were bulky and uncomfortable, says Sharkey, who acknowledges that this technology is much better today.

“We know how many questions adults have about how much sleep is enough, and the role that sleep plays in brain health and cognitive function,” said Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., GCBH Chair, Professor of Neurology and Director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “This [GCBH] report answers a lot of these questions and we hope it will be a valuable source of information for people,” she says.

Simple Tips to Better Sleep

Getting a goodnights sleep may be as easy as following these tips detailed in the 16-page GCBH report.

Consider getting up at the same time every day, seven days a week. Restrict fluids and food three hours before going to bed to help avoid disrupting your sleep to use the bathroom. Avoid using OTC medications for sleep because they can have negative side-effects, including disrupted sleep quality and impaired cognitive functioning.
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The GCBH report notes that dietary supplements such as melatonin may have benefits for some people, but scientific evidence on their effectiveness is inconclusive. Be particularly cautious of melatonin use with dementia patients.

Naps are not always a cure to enhancing your sleep. Avoid long naps; if you must nap, limit to 30 minutes in the early afternoon.

“There has been such a steady stream of revealing brain-health reports that it would seem people would change their habits accordingly,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Taking active steps is what’s important – and the earlier the better,” she added.

“The personal benefits are obvious, but we should be aware of the cost savings that better brain health can produce. If people in their
50s get on board, the impact on healthcare costs and a reduced burden of caregiving 20 years down the road could be significant,” Connell added. “At the very least, those savings could help cover other rising costs. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to assess and improve aspects of diet and exercise. And we should not overlook the importance of sleep.”

The full GCBH recommendations can be found here: http://www.globalcouncilonbrainhealth.org. The 2016 AARP Sleep and Brain Health Survey can be found here: http://www.aarp.org/sleepandbrainhealth.