Use it Or Lose It: Minds on the Move

Today on Studio 5 Rita Garbett from Home Instead Senior Care, talked about how seniors can keep mentally fit by staying active.


When it comes to how the mind ages, research is increasingly giving new meaning to the popular phrase “use it or lose it,” said Home Instead Senior Care CEO and Co-Founder Paul Hogan.

“We know that mind games keep many aging minds young and vital,” Hogan said. So what are today’s seniors doing to keep mentally fit? Many have said goodbye to traditional games such as bingo. They’re gravitating more to video-game technology and group activities such as Scrabble and bridge tournaments. According to the latest studies, it all helps.

Researchers in a study published just last year in Psychological Medicine from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, found that individuals with high brain reserve — which looks at the roles of education, occupational complexity, and mentally stimulating pursuits in preventing cognitive decline — have a 46-percent decreased risk of dementia than those with low brain reserve. The study found that it is, in fact, a case of “use it or lose it,” and pointed out that even a late-life surge in mental activity can stave off the effects of this terrible disease.

However, one deterrent for many seniors who would like to stay mentally active is lack of companionship — particularly for those older adults who live alone. “Sometimes seniors just need a little encouragement from family and friends to help them pursue interests that can keep their minds stimulated,” Hogan said. “Through games and puzzles, cards and music, Home Instead CAREGivers have seen lives change for many older adults throughout communities across the country.”

Group activities also are popular, with some Home Instead Senior Care offices hosting bridge and Scrabble tournaments for seniors.

In 2003, a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who participated in activities such as board games, reading, playing a musical instrument or working a crossword puzzle were less likely to develop dementia than were people who said they engaged in those types of activities rarely or not at all.

So what causes the kind of brain drain that seniors must try to thwart? From a scientific
standpoint, multiple factors apparently contribute to a sluggish senior mind, said Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. In his words, “There is often a genetic component, but the environment plays a role as well. The cumulative impacts of medical issues such as vascular changes like hardening of the arteries also contribute to dementia.” He also pointed out that, “The connections between the nerve cells probably also don’t work as well.”

On the other hand, Petersen observes, the wisdom and acquired experience seniors bring to the table is often under-valued in our society. That’s why exercising the mind as well as the body is such an important goal for older adults.

He said there are no hard and fast rules about what senior mind activities are the best in warding off the effects of aging. “Whether it’s a computer game, crossword or Sudoku puzzles, or reading and analyzing a newspaper or magazine, first and foremost seniors should like what they’re doing,” Petersen said. “If the senior does not enjoy the activity, then it is not as likely to be beneficial.”

The advent of today’s video technology has certainly attracted the attention of many seniors. Consider the following:

• The second-annual “Evercare 100 @ 100 Survey,” sponsored by the company Evercare, polled one hundred Americans turning 100 and older this year about their practices and habits and found that one in seven has played video games.

• And the New York Times reported earlier this year that PopCap Games in Seattle says its video games have been downloaded more than 200 million times since the company was founded in 2000. A spokesman said that the company was stunned by results of a customer survey last year, which found that 47 percent of players were older than 50 years.

Other retailers are noticing the trend as well. Nintendo’s Brain AgeTM: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day, a video game for the portable Nintendo DSTM that features simple math and other activities, also has received high marks from seniors and researchers. And its new Wii home video game system — which allows players to interactively compete in sports such as bowling and golf — is flying off the shelves, with seniors comprising a significant consumer market for this new video game. Senior care communities around the country are even hosting Wii tournaments.

Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California (USC), says games such as Brain Age can help keep older adults’ minds active. “My family, including boys ages 17 and (nearly) 21, has a long history of interest in video games. Like kids, seniors are playing games with people all around the world: it’s all about communication,” Zelinski explains. “Seniors can do a great deal to maintain and even improve their mental abilities. Aging is all about taking on new challenges for our minds.”

Tips for Mind-Stimulating Fun

Following, from Home Instead Senior Care, are ways to help engage your senior loved one in mind-stimulating activities:

Video action. Interactive video games have become popular for family members of all ages. Some games, such as Nintendo’s Brain Age , and the new Wii home video game system, are particularly good for stimulating seniors minds.

Computer savvy not needed. Even seniors who are intimidated by the computer still can play online and other computer games. Why not try to help them get started playing Solitaire or joining an online bridge game?

Organize game night. Board or card games offer a great avenue for mind stimulation. Why not encourage your senior loved one to get a few friends together to join in the fun?

The magic of music. Many seniors were avid musicians in earlier years and some may still have pianos or instruments in their homes. Ask them to play you a tune or challenge them to learn an instrument.

Tournament fun. Bridge and Scrabble tournaments for seniors are springing up around the country. Check with your local senior center or Home Instead Senior Care office to learn of any activities in your area. Or encourage your older adult to join a local bridge group.

Think big. Crossword, large-piece jigsaw and Sudoku puzzles are great pastimes for seniors who need a mind-stimulating activity when they are alone.

Out and about. Most communities have concerts, lectures and other pursuits that can interest seniors and their families. If your loved one is able to get out, consider those.

In the news. Many seniors maintain their interest in politics and current events. For their next birthday, why not renew a subscription to a newspaper or popular news magazine. Or organize a news discussion group.

Just the two of you. When it’s just you and your senior loved one, remember there are more things you can do than watch television. Hasbro Inc., the largest U.S. game company, has introduced three fast versions of classic board games this year: Monopoly Express, Scrabble Express and Sorry Express. They don’t take long to play!

Companionship Counts. Companionship is an important part of stimulating seniors’ minds. If your senior has no one to spend time with, consider hiring a companion, such as a Home Instead CAREGiver.

For more information about Home Instead Senior Care visit their website at

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