Rogalski: Good for the heart, good for the brain.
The purpose of the game is simple. Collect red, green, or blue coins by pedaling a stationary bike through a virtual environment. Then catch dragons of the corresponding color before the time runs out.
It's a fun way for patrons of the Colbert Wellness Clinic to stay motivated during long workouts. It also might be helpful in avoiding the cognitive decline associated with aging.
According to Ithaca College professor of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology Yvonne Rogalski, multi-faceted approaches like combining exercise and problem solving is one of the best ways to keep the brain sharp.
“There are neurological benefits of exercise. It increases brain volume. Your brain gets heavier as a result of exercise, in key areas for memory and learning,” Rogalski said. “It becomes better when you add an extra task. If you combine it with a cognitive or social activity.”
Last year, Rogalski reviewed a series of meta-analyses of four common approaches to avoiding mild cognitive impairment: exercise, social interaction, brain training, and diet. Rogalski said she wanted to provide context to the abundance of studies out there on the cognitive effects of aging and provide more nuanced information.
“Folks over the age of 65 are the fastest growing population,” Rogalski said. “It’s hard for them to be savvy consumers of cognitive aging information because most are not going to look at the research studies. They’re going to remember what they heard on TV or the news, which might be one study but might contradict something they had previously heard.”
Rogalski’s review suggests that there is no one perfect solution to combating cognitive decline, but instead several helpful but imperfect methods, each with its own shortcomings.
For example, eating foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids like fish, flax seeds and walnuts has shown in animal studies to reduce plaque formation, increase blood flow, and decrease inflammation in the brain. The effects of human consumption of Omega 3s are less consistent; however, eating fish appears to provide the most cognitive benefit.
Being socially active is another method associated with higher scores on some cognitive tests as you get older, however it’s unclear whether this is due to reverse causation, that is, older adults who are more social, had higher cognitive functioning levels when they were younger. Rogalski says the evidence just isn’t there, yet.
Brain training games, like the ones found on websites like Lumosity.com, have also become popular recently and have shown to improve a person’s ability to complete the task required in the game, but the improvements are often skill specific. Through repetition, the person gets better at the task they’re asked to perform, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to other skills.
“Playing something like Angry Birds is not all that complex,” Rogalski explains. “You’re going to get better at playing Angry Birds. Whether or not that’s going to be helpful to you in the real world is a different story.”
The approach that performed the best of those reviewed was exercise. According to Muriel Quintana, an IC student who assisted with the review paper, the strongest evidence existed for improving your brain was to get in better shape.
Or in other words, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.
“It shouldn’t be all that surprising,” Quintana said. “But I don’t think most people know that that correlation exists.”
So what does this all mean? Are the latest fad diets and fun websites really going to help you fight cognitive decline?
Rogalski says the best insight to pull from her review of the evidence is that while there is no silver bullet, there are ways that older adults can reduce cognitive decline.
“We think the best approach to healthy cognitive aging is multi-pronged,” Rogalski said. “Meaning, they should enhance activity engagement in a variety of areas.”