Mind games: Games help people retain brain power

Jessica Young

To stave off Alzheimer’s disease, 64-year-old Judith Walker follows doctor’s orders. Sudoku. Scrabble. Monopoly. FreeCell on the computer.

“He told me that it might help me avoid some of the symptoms, so I devote more than two hours a day to those kinds of activities,” said the Streamwood resident. “My mom and grandmother had Alzheimer’s, so we knew I was predisposed.”

So Walker’s physician armed her with tools to keep her mind sharp. And, according to the latest research, playing games works wonders in that area. And so she began to integrate recreation time into her daily routines. Walker and her caretaker do puzzles, she plays board games with the grandkids and the senior also likes crosswords.

“Having gone through it with my mom, I know I will lose my vocabulary, but I want to keep my cognitive ability,” she said. “I want to know my thinking is sound and that I’m processing information accurately when making a decision. The goal is to stay closer to how I functioned when I was younger.”

Healthcare experts, geriatric specialists, caretakers and even retailers are recognizing the benefits of mental activity for combating cognitive deterioration. And with Baby Boomers aging into the demographic, Bingo is falling by the wayside as companies like Nintendo target the market with video games aimed at brain stimulation.

“It is a case of use it or lose it,” said Kelly Hutchison, owner of Home Instead Senior Care, which serves DuPage and Cook counties. “You can see a clear difference in the sweet 92-year-old woman who is still active on that front and the 72-year-old one who is isolated and uninterested in games or socializing.”

According to Rush University Medical Center’s Memory and Aging Project, there was a 50 percent reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s associated with frequent participation in activities that involve mental processes. The study tracked the mental decline and daily routine of more than 700 seniors averaging 80 years old over five years.

The findings also concluded that mental inactivity causes seniors to have more than a two-and-a-half times greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s over a senior who is mentally active. Regular mental activity was also associated with increased protection against mild mental impairments.

A 2006 study published in “Psychological Medicine” had similar conclusions. After five weeks of memory-based mental exercise, participants increased brain chemistry markers in the opposite direction as trends seen in Alzheimer’s. People with high brain reserve had a 46 percent decreased risk of dementia compared to those with low brain reserve.

Donna Chmielewski, a registered nurse servicing DuPage, Kane and suburban Cook counties, has many patients with dementia and sees the effects of passivity firsthand.

“The ones who do crossword puzzles, play cards and read the paper are better able to remember things. The ones who aren’t active like that slip much quicker,” said Chmielewski, geriatric care manager at The Right Team, a group of eldercare professionals. “The brain is a muscle. The more you use it, the better it responds when you call on it for something. Neurons in the brain are at their peak when stimulated, and if you’re sitting there watching TV, they aren’t interacting.”

While she and Hutchison are quick to point out that game playing will not necessarily prevent intellectual decline, keeping the wheels turning is a big part of keeping a healthy lifestyle and honing memory.

“Science might be fuzzy about the connectivity of that. But the more blood flow is increased and the more neurons in the brain fire and associate with each other, the better,” Hutchison said. “This generation thinks that this is a bunch of hooey. What we try to do is, one by one, make believers.”

And while pinochle and “Wheel of Fortune” are longtime favorites of the over-60 set, more current alternatives have arrived on the scene.

Nintendo’s Touch Generations line, designed for video game novices, came out with “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day” and “Brain Age 2” as a way to reach out to the Baby Boomer audience. The games use word scrambles, number tests, piano players, memory puzzles and rock, paper, scissors games. It was a hit at the AARP’s Life@50 Expo and attracted many grandparents to Nintendo World in New York for a Grandparents’ Day battle of the brains.

Nick Stamapoulos, a 73-year-old Westchester resident, has played Brain Age religiously since his daughter purchased it for him. He also has a casino video game that he can play slots on.

“I guess my daughter wanted to make sure I remained in possession of my faculties, and it is kind of fun,” he said. “I resisted at first because I figured my eyesight was too bad to see the screen, which is made for a young kid, and thought my arthritis would prevent me from using the control. But, to my surprise, I was fine.”

Hutchison always encourages children to make sure their aging parents are adopting a regular routine of mental stimulation. After witnessing seniors playing Wii and getting excited over merely seeing their character move on the screen, his use-it-or-lose-it philosophy was reinforced.

“It’s about more than making sure the laundry gets done, errands are finished and medication is taken on time,” Hutchison said. “It’s a quality of life issue. To optimize it, you can’t be sitting, remote in hand, waiting for your program.

“As their bodies have given them bad news and as their daily schedules have gradually been cleared, they become homebound and maybe no longer have that social network to infuse them with vitality,” he added. “So outings to the library, puzzles, cards can help make up for that and forestall that mental slowdown.”