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Improve Brain Health with Neurobics

Ballard, Dustin MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000391652.01873.1d
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There's a woman at my gym who walks on the treadmill. Backwards. Why the heck does she do that? Not because the view is better and not in protest of the television that sits atop the machinery. Not to wear her sneakers evenly or to draw attention to herself (although she accomplishes both). No, she walks backwards for the neurobic benefit. That's right, neurobics — aerobics for the brain. And while walking backwards on a treadmill may not be a particularly safe exercise, the basic concept behind it is interesting.

The term “neurobics” was first introduced about 10 years ago by neurobiologist Lawrence C. Katz, PhD, with the hypothesis that mental exercises, especially those that tax the brain in novel ways, can stimulate the growth of new dendrites and neurons. The theory is that most people perform many actions by routine; those processes are hard-wired by repetition into the brain's mainframe. Routines like how you tie your shoes or answer the phone or walk on the treadmill are performed with little conscious thought. By switching things up and challenging your brain to orchestrate tasks or thoughts in different ways, you may be able to improve the cognitive function of your brain.

Intrigued? You're in luck. Dr. Katz and Manning Rubin have written Keep Your Brain Alive, a book describing 83 neurobic maneuvers (“cross-training for the brain”) for people over 40. The drills, which are designed to fit into your daily routine, include writing or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand and starting the ignition of your car with eyes closed. These are simple changes, not the New York Times crossword or advanced Sudoku, but Dr. Katz and others are convinced there is a benefit. You probably don't need a book to teach you neurobics. How about using nothing but facial expressions to communicate during dinner? Typing an e-mail without looking at the keyboard? Walking backwards on the treadmill?

Is there any solid evidence that neurobics help cognition? When I recently perused the medical literature, I didn't find much evidence supporting the specific practice of neurobics. This doesn't mean, of course, that neurobics aren't valuable; it just means that they haven't been adequately studied.

Research has shown, however, that “cognitive engagement,” such as regular reading, learning a musical instrument or playing card games, is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's dementia. (This from an exhaustive NIH review prepared by scientists at the Duke Evidence-based Practice Center.) Physical activity also seems to have a benefit. A recent article in Clinics in Geriatric Medicine reviewed dozens of studies on the topic, many of which enrolled thousands of participants. The bottom line, according to the authors: “Increasing evidence suggests than an active life has a protective effect on brain functioning in the elderly population,” but no quality study to date “has shown that regular physical activity prevents dementia.”

With the U.S. population aging — more than 70 million Americans will turn 65 in the next two decades — brain health is sure to become a major priority for physician and scientists. If we can keep this population active and productive well past the age of Social Security, there will be major benefits for individuals and society.

I asked a neurologist friend what he thought about improving brain health. Neurobics? He'd never heard of them. Physical activity and plenty of Vitamin D are good ideas for anyone of any age. Antioxidants in the diet to neutralize free radicals? Absolutely. “Tell your readers,” he told me, “to eat blueberries.” A tasty thought, but I wouldn't suggest eating them while walking backwards on a treadmill.

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