12 January 2016

Brain Training Addendum

Playing brain games may be fun, but as discussed in last Friday’s blog post, Brain Training Games, the jury is still out on whether it has any significant effect on cognitive decline. That said, what has shown promise is described in the Institute of Medicine report cited in the blog post.

Three sections of the report address “Risk and Protective Factors and Interventions” in different contexts--Lifestyle and Physical Environment, Health and Medical Factors, and General Cognitive Aging Interventions and Next Steps--and there are separate “action guides.”

Stay active to stay sharp.
(multiple websites)

Despite individual variation in cognitive function, the authors judge the scientific evidence sufficient to recommend that everyone be physically active, reduce and manage cardiovascular disease risk factors (hypertension, diabetes and smoking), and regularly review health conditions and medications that might influence cognitive health with a healthcare professional.

No, it doesn’t have to be that
active. (multiple websites)
Other interventions they recognize as showing promise include being socially and intellectually engaged, continually seeking opportunities to learn, getting adequate sleep and eating a healthy diet.

On the flip side, they note that research has not supported any available medication or vitamin supplement (or gingko biloba) for improving cognitive function; and as you’d expect, excessive alcohol consumption and stress can decrease cognitive performance.

Sitting here, writing, with my mug of coffee close by, I’m happy to convey that caffeine has shown short-term beneficial effects on some aspects of cognition.

Proprioceptively Dynamic Research

Before leaving the topic, I thought I’d take this opportunity to review a recent pilot study that showed climbing a tree or balancing on a beam can improve cognitive skills. To be clear, the study was not from the Institute of Medicine’s report, and though it involves interventions recognized in the report, it’s not for me to say, “Hey, this works.”

The study deals with proprioception, which MedicineNet describes as the ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion and equilibrium. Even blindfolded, you know through proprioception if your arm is above your head or hanging by your side.

University of North Florida researchers enlisted participants, age 18 to 59, tested their working memory, then led them through activities that required proprioception and at least one other element, such as locomotion or route planning, e.g., climbing trees, traversing a 3 inch wide beam, navigating obstacles as well as lifting and carrying unbalanced objects. 

Climb a tree to improve
your cognitive skills.
(multiple websites)
The researchers retested the participants after two hours of such activities and found their working memory capacity had increased by 50 percent!

For comparison, the researchers also conducted before and after tests with two control groups: a college class sitting in a lecture, learning new information, and a yoga class performing static proprioceptive activities. Neither group experienced any working memory benefit.

The researchers attributed the cognitive benefit of proprioceptively dynamic activities to the demand the activities placed on the participants’ working memory. As the environment and terrain changed, the participants had to draw upon working memory to update information and adapt.


National Academies Institute of Medicine’s notice of the cognitive aging report and full report:
Research study on proprioceptively dynamic activity in Perceptual and Motor Skills journal: www.amsciepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/22.PMS.120v18x1
University of North Florida press release and article on study on Time website:

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