NEWS March 16th, 2009

By Kelly Gadzala

Flexing muscles aids brain brawn

Staying active is key to keeping mentally sharp and lowering risks of dementia

If your New Year’s resolutions are still fresh in your mind, you may want to consider this: How fresh is your mind?.

With talk of a senior population that may double in the next 20 years in Ontario, brain health is becoming a particularly heady subject.

In April, the Ontario government announced $10 million to fund the creation of The Centre for Brain Fitness at Toronto’s Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System, to prepare, in part, for what many are calling the health crisis of an aging population.

To mark Alzheimer Awareness Month this month, the Alzheimer Society of Canada has released data from a report called Rising Tide: The Impact of Dementia on Canadian Society. Initial findings indicate the number of Canadians living with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia could more than double to 1.3 million in the next 20 years.

“If the brain isn’t functioning well, nothing functions well,” says Mary Schulz, director of information, support services and education for the organization.

The good and fairly recent news, Schulz says, is prevention of the disease is possible. Until recently, our understanding was there was nothing we could do to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Now, she says, we can lower our risks if we take certain steps, and you’re never too young to start.

“The earlier we can get people thinking of their overall brain health, (then) we can impact that trajectory,” she says.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada has tips for developing a healthy brain on its website,

First off, it’s important to challenge your brain. If you perform tasks you’re not used to doing, your brain is forced to think in a different way and create new mental connections, Schulz says.

You don’t have to be a whiz with a Rubik’s Cube or brainteasers to reap the benefits of a good mental challenge, either. Flexing your brain muscles can be as pedestrian as brushing your hair or teeth using your less-dominant hand, Schulz says — not easy feats at first.

“Your brain is forced to wake up.”

Being socially active is another way to boost brain capacity. Older people can sometimes be isolated socially and become depressed as a result, Schulz suggests.

“Depression can really affect our brain’s ability to function,” she says, adding social activity can be as simple as chatting to a person on an elevator.

Toronto resident Inge Spitz, 81, says social activity is important to her mental acuity. She sees her children and grandchildren frequently and also volunteers her time as a Holocaust survivor guest speaker in and around Toronto.

“My mind is there,” Spitz says, though she admits she is physically slowing down a bit. When she’s not seeing family, she’s watching TV — “anything,” she says — and is always learning something new from what she sees and hears.

Having a positive lease on life is integral to her good mental health, Spitz says. “I don’t like the negativity of life. . . . I’ve been through hell and back.”

And, to a certain extent, being unconscious of how her mental health is doing is one of the secrets to her success.

“I never think about it,” Spitz says. “I just live.”

If you’ve made a conscious effort to zoot up your cardio or physical regimen, don’t worry: those early morning jogs may be helping your brain matter after all. Recent studies indicate physical activity in older adults can improve cognitive function and maybe even reverse the brain volume shrinkage that happens as we age.

Erin Billowits of Vintage Fitness says some studies have shown exercising for 30 minutes, three times a week can improve cognitive functioning like memory.

But the certified fitness instructor who specializes in working with older adults says she’s seen many instances of how physical activity can transform a person’s mental state.

One severely depressed client dramatically improved her state of mind by becoming more physically and socially active.

Another older woman has been physically active her whole life. “When she told me she was 80, I almost fell over,” Billowits says.

The woman looks young, has amazing confidence and an ability to solve problems, and still lives on her own.

Billowits is sure exercise has played a role in that independence.

Unfortunately, she has also seen how inactivity and grieving can produce the opposite effect. A senior client recently lost her husband and spent a lot of time doing nothing, she says. The woman started forgetting appointments and not being able to manage her household. Now she’s starting to exercise once a week. It’s a work in progress, Billowits says.

Anyone who’s ever bumbled through an aerobics routine will say a physical workout can definitely be a mental workout. Billowits frequently works with those who have Parkinson’s disease, a condition resulting from the loss of certain brain cells.

Some exercises, like tossing a beanbag back and forth, help the clients with their brain function.

“It helps them maintain connections in the brain,” she says.

Though studies show a link between aerobic activity and improved cognitive function, they stop short of drawing a connection between brain acuity and a specific form of physical exercise.

But Sari Nisker, co-owner of Spynga, The Yoga and Cycling Studio, swears by yoga as a brain-boosting activity. Not only does she feel more aware of her body and mind, she says, but she also feels practising yoga daily has helped her develop a more creative approach to problem solving.

“Yoga encourages you to pause and take a break,” Nisker says, instead of reacting immediately when situations arise.

Nisker started yoga 10 years ago while working as a busy and “overloaded” marketing professional in New York City.

“I felt my mental capacity started to change,” she says of trying yoga for the first time. “(Yoga) slowed down the mental chaos in my mind.”

And she loved it so much she made a career out of it.
When she doesn’t practise on her mat every day, Nisker says she can feel it in her brain, literally. She recently took a two-week skiing holiday and while she was very active, she didn’t do as much yoga.

“I felt very sluggish in my mind,” she says. “Mind and body are so connected.”

That’s a message Mary Bamford, registered dietician in Toronto, can relate to. The foundation of good brain function, Bamford says, is overall good health.

That includes keeping your arteries healthy so you have a good blood supply to the brain.

“Keep the pipeline in shape,” Bamford says. Clogged or damaged arteries impair cognitive function, she says, as fuel is not getting to the brain.

There’s no single wonder food that can improve your brain but according to Bamford, eating certain nutrient-rich foods will supply your brain with what it needs to function well.

An Omega 3 fat known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), found only in fish and eggs, impacts learning and memory, she says, and 80 percent of people don’t get enough of it. Eating fish twice a week — frozen or canned are fine, she says — is best.

Eating fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants — look for the bright greens, blues and reds — also help brain function as they counter the inflammation caused by illness or mere bumps, she says. Without antioxidants, inflammation in the brain can lead to damage and even death of brain cells.

Spreading out your carbohydrate intake throughout the day and making sure you get 130 grams daily helps fuel the brain, she says.

“The brain wants carbs,” Bamford says, and if you don’t fuel your brain with them, your productivity and mood will dim like a fading lamp.

If you load up on protein, you won’t be giving your brain enough fuel.

“Your brain can’t function on a candle,” she says. “Don’t let the lights dim.”