Neuroplasticity. You’ve probably heard of it, perhaps when someone mentioned something about “rewiring the brain.” It’s a fancy term that describes our brain’s flexibility. Essentially, it refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize, both physically and in terms of functionality, driven by environment, emotions, behavior, and thinking.
But in recent years, researchers have been digging into the potential to use this incredible capability for specific advantages, such as rewiring the brain to overcome depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, or to enable people who have cognitive deficits to re-train their brains to remaster tasks they once knew well. The key lies giving our brains the right type of stimulation, on a consistent basis. But what does the potential of neuroplasticity mean for seniors, particularly those who are at risk of or already experiencing cognitive decline?
The Best Brains of Our Lives
Our brains are more fertile and resilient than once believed — in fact, they actually peak in performance sometime in midlife, which most researchers define as anywhere from ages 40 to 68.
In The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, New York Times health and medical science editor Barbara Strauch writes, “Middle age is a far more important time for our brains than anyone ever suspected. This is when paths diverge. What we do when we’re on Planet Middle Age determines what the next stop, Planet Old Age, will look like. At midlife, the brain is ‘on the cusp’. What we do matters, and even what we think matters.”
Still, an increasing number of older adults suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. No matter when this peak occurs when Alzheimer’s disease takes hold, it progressively diminishes a person’s cognitive abilities over time.
This Is Your Brain On Games
Let’s start with games. Oh, you thought video games were just for kids, or serious gamers? Think again. Turns out games can be great for the older set, too. The fact that they’re so engaging has an added benefit: games can help keep older adults’ brains healthy and may even help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive decline.
Some of the top online brain training games and apps to consider:
- Lumosity. This smartphone app offers a continuously updated set of scientific games and cognitive challenges designed to improve memory and stimulate the brain. In this ADHD age, Lumosity focuses attention on detail, a skill that’s lost with dementia.
- Clevermind. If someone already has Alzheimer’s disease, the voice-activated iPad app Clevermind can help stimulate cognitive abilities. It can keep a user apprised of the date, the weather, the news, and nutrition; suggest exercise activities, and, of course, keep the user connected with family and friends.
- Dakim. This brain gym uses thousands of individual exercises to cross-train your brain in half a dozen essential areas of cognition, giving your gray matter a complete workout. Dakim even refers to their patented NuroLogic™ Technology as, “A personal trainer for the brain.”
- Fit Brains. Designed by game experts with input from neuroscientists, Fit Brains offers over 60 games and 500+ personalized training programs to keep your mental circuits whirring at peak capacity. It’s fun, fast, competitive. You might even work up a sweat!
- Cranium Crunches. Designed by Ruth Curran the author of Being Brain Healthy and An Insider’s Guide to the Injured Brain: A workbook for survivors and those who support them. Launched in 2011, we now have six games and users from all over the world.
Backing Up Your Memories
Games are a great start. But what if a senior in the early stages of Alzheimer’s is struggling with the kind of simple reminder issues the rest of us now trust to our smartphones?
In Still Alice, a Harvard linguistics professor relies on her Blackberry to remember appointments. Alice writes herself a letter on her computer that contains key brain health information, such as the number of children she has, their names, and her eldest daughter’s birthday, with instructions to her future self: when she is unable to answer all the questions correctly, she will no longer be of sound mind. The question is, will she know when her answers aren’t accurate?
Samsung addresses this unsettling question with Backup Memory, an app that helps Alzheimer’s patients stave off the loss. Backup Memory acts as a memory stimulator for people who are exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer’s, identifying nearby family members and friends, and reminding users about their relationship with each person and memories they’ve shared in the past through photographs and videos.
Brain Trauma Can Mimic Alzheimer’s
It’s also valuable to know that what looks like Alzheimer’s disease may not be dementia at all, but a TBI (traumatic brain injury). As DePaul University professor Clark Elliott explores in his eight-year odyssey with TBI, The Ghost in My Brain, a concussion can cause symptoms that masquerade as Alzheimer’s due to cognitive processing problems.
He describes how a football player with TBI became progressively less able to schedule appointments, until “it got to the point where you couldn’t tell him the day before an event and expect him to remember.”
Elliott devised a brain assessment self-test that mirrors that of the fictional Alice: he would ask himself, “What are the names of my children?” and gauge his brain’s functionality for the day based on how long it took him to answer: anywhere from six seconds on good days to more than three minutes on “bad brain days.”
Those who do have Alzheimer’s usually recognize what is happening to them. In this poignant blog Watching the Lights Go Out, a retired physician gives us a rare glimpse into what losing one’s mental acuity is like from the inside.
The silver lining: his initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis was downgraded a year later to “subjective cognitive impairments.” And he acknowledges a number of gifts from the original diagnosis:
“I’m less uptight about getting things done and am fairly (although not completely) comfortable taking on fewer responsibilities. I’m easier to get along with (people tell me), and I have more friends. I can rely on others, where before I would have insisted on being more independent. None of this is perfect, of course; there’s plenty of backsliding, but I am so much happier than before.“
Whether you’re already experiencing a cognitive decline due to a TBI, Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, or you’re simply looking for ways to keep your brain engaged and your cognitive abilities sharp, games aren’t just for kids. Challenging your mind through games and stimulating activities is one of the best ways to help ward off cognitive decline as you age – and you might just learn a new trick or two in the process.
Angela Stringfellow is a freelance writer based in central PA. She writes about aging, senior living, and issues facing older adults and senior caregivers for Caregiver Homes and a variety of caregiver-focused publications.