Keeping Your Brain Fit

There's plenty you can do to slow the effects of aging.

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Much of the work has focused on finding ways to bulletproof people against Alzheimer's. In mice, an Alzheimer's vaccine seemed to work, but it proved toxic in humans and trials were suspended (although research on vaccines continues). Beta carotene supplements may delay cognitive decline if taken for many years—but only by a year and a half. Education seems to lower your odds of Alzheimer's—but even some Nobel laureates develop it. Cholesterol-lowering drugs seemed to offer some promise in fending off Alzheimer's, but a 12-year-long study published in January showed they had no effect. For now, experts think the best approach is to take the sorts of steps that Conte is taking to delay normal cognitive decline.

Stretch the plastic. For decades, scientists assumed that humans were born with all the brain cells they'd ever have. Then, in the 1970s, researchers showed that new brain cells and neural pathways form through the end of life. "This was the beginning of the brain plasticity movement," says Cohen, "the understanding that when we challenge our brains, the brain cells sprout new dendrites, which results in increased synapses, or contact points." More recent research has shown that there isn't an age limit: Training older adults in certain memory tasks, like remembering faces and names, seems to boost those specific abilities—though it won't remind you to bring your shopping list to the store. And the newest evidence suggests that intensive practice in reasoning skills or in distinguishing sounds appears to lead to more generalized improvements in brain function.

In 2006, for example, a controlled clinical study of more than 2,000 older people by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University, and elsewhere found that those who received 10 60-to-75-minute training sessions in reasoning—specifically, in recognizing word, number, and letter patterns and filling in the next item in a series—reported less difficulty with such activities of daily living as understanding instructions on a medication label. The effects still were apparent five years later. This past November, scientists from the University of Southern California and the Mayo Clinic announced that study subjects who spent an hour a day for eight to 10 weeks using a program that asked them to recognize subtle differences in sounds performed better than the control group on memory and speed tests, too. Designers of the Brain Fitness Program (made by Posit Science, which funded the study) claim that such ear training causes the brain to convey information more precisely from one region to another—which, in turn, improves other types of thinking.

"The amount of memory improvement was equivalent to going back 10 years in your ability," says Elizabeth Zelinski, professor of gerontology and psychology at USC and a principal investigator on the study, which has not yet been published.

Experts caution that most brain-training products haven't been tested and that what data do exist are still shaky. If improvement of daily living tasks is the goal, "we don't yet have the data to suggest they accomplish that," says Arthur Kramer, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois. "Yes, we have data that says you can get better at certain things with practice. But does it translate to the real world? We don't know yet." Still, many doctors who work with older people feel they don't have time to wait for the research, and nursing homes and senior centers across the country are adding "brain gyms" and other programs to help older people stay mentally active.

"I've learned more about China than you can imagine," says Hortense Gutmann, 100, who started using E-mail just over a year ago through a new computer-education program for residents of Sarah Neuman Center for Healthcare and Rehabilitation, a nursing home in Mamaroneck, N.Y. She now keeps in touch with relatives there, as well as in Minnesota and Israel, and takes great pleasure in having mastered a new skill.