We have all heard that mental challenges—working crossword puzzles, learning foreign languages-are good "exercise" for the brain. But regular old exercise of the physical kind may also play a role in strengthening the mind against the effects of aging.
"People who are more active in older age seem to have better cognitive ability," says psychologist Karlene Ball, Ph.D., an international expert in cognitive fitness who directs UAB's Roybal Center for Research on Applied Gerontology. But the exact relationship between physical and mental fitness is unclear, she says. For instance, "maybe people who are cognitively more advanced also like to exercise." Ball is leading a new study that may offer fresh insight on the connection. It will pair strength training and aerobic exercise with a computer-based brain workout she has designed to improve mental processing in older adults.
The study is an extension of the successful ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) trial. Using Ball's speed-of-processing exercises, as well as memory and reasoning exercises, ACTIVE participants improved in a range of everyday skills, from medication management to work activities to shopping and driving. The techniques are also being evaluated in other groups, Ball notes, including patients with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and HIV.
How do they work? "It takes a certain amount of time for information to travel from the eye to the brain, and then the brain processes it and sends a message to your muscles," Ball says. Her software uses a series of exercises that push participants to process more and more information in less and less time. "We actually train the brain to respond more quickly," she says. At-home versions of the software are being developed now.
The effectiveness of this method has been borne out in UAB's driving simulator, where participants improved in road-related skills. For obvious reasons, insurance companies and state motor-vehicle departments are very interested in Ball's research.
"Older adults, per mile driven, have a higher crash rate than teenagers," says geriatrician Richard Allman, M.D. But the solution, he insists, is not to start taking away car keys. As the principal investigator for UAB's Study of Aging, Allman is conducting one of the nation's most comprehensive surveys on what it's like to grow old in America today. His research shows that wheeled mobility is almost as important as physical mobility when it comes to maintaining an elderly person's quality of life.
"There's very limited public transportation available for most of the elderly in the state of Alabama," Allman says. "If they can't drive, how are they going to get out? If we take away their transportation, they're going to stay in their homes, become malnourished, or not get medical care." Even after controlling for general conditions, health, mental status, and emotional status, transportation difficulties consistently predict future declines in mobility among the subjects in the UAB Study of Aging.
But the simple training methods being developed by Ball and her colleagues offer hope, she explains. "We're really saying that you may be able to prevent some of these declines."