Dear Doctor, 

Is it true that mental activity can help older people. We are trying to get our mother to do things to help her keep her memory and make her life better.

Daughter

Dear Daughter,

It would seem the maxim “use it or lose it” is helpful in dealing with the aging mental functions. What is the evidence?

Recent studies stress “neuroplasticity” or the apparent phenomenon of more unified and cohesive brain functions are more critical than previously thought. Think of the brain as a responsive organ. It changes physically in response to what we experience. Here are a few examples.

There is a clear advantage to higher education. The more highly educated, the less likelihood there is, to a considerable degree, of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. This has been clearly researched. The “why” is debatable. For example, is there a resistance to deterioration in brain anatomy in such individuals anyway?

Parts of the brain respond to training, work and life experiences. Musicians have a cluster of cells called Heschl’s area. It grows with musical training and wanes if the individual stops.

A central area in the brain grows with multilingual training. Apparent mastery of more than one language results in clusters of new cells.

There is a famous study of London cab drivers. Their memory for streets in the warren of complex roads and rules in London results in larger hippocampi, an area having to do with verbal and spatial memory.

We now know brain cells are produced de novo — anew — well into old age. We also know that able and bright individuals may be found to have the tangles and plaques associated with Alzheimer’s, but with no ill effects. The neuroplastic functions prevail.

This unique response to stimulation and experiences is developing into a remarkable body of evidence, which would indicate the “use it or lose it” principle is a valid one. Make the brain do pushups in the gym of learning new things 

Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. If you would like to ask a question, or respond to one, email him at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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