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Cross-train your brain to fight cognitive decline

Liz Henry

Moments of forgetfulness happen to everyone. Whether it’s losing your car keys or not remembering why you opened the refrigerator, it can be frustrating to blank out when trying to remember something. When those moments happen, it’s easy to attribute it to an aging mind. But forgetfulness doesn't have to be a symptom of encroaching old age. In fact, advances in science are enabling us to reclaim lost ground and even prevent loss of memory and function.

This week on Take Care, Dr. Sherry Willis, discusses cognitive function and how older adults can keep their minds sharp. Willis is an adjunct research professor in the department of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Sherry Willis.

Willis began studying cognitive decline in adults in the 1980s in Seattle. She followed adults and looked at change in cognitive function to see the effects of training in adults who had stable mental abilities and those with declining mental abilities. 

“There are a number of different abilities,” Willis said. “We sometimes think that all abilities involve memory. But there are distinct abilities.”

The different types of cognitive abilities include: reasoning, math skills, memory, verbal skills, and spatial orientation. 

There are some general patterns to when cognitive abilities decline. On average, abilities decline in the mid-60s, except for verbal skills, which decline later, in the mid-70s. But this does not mean it always happens at those ages. There are wide individual differences when it comes to decline.

Sometimes the type of work you do in a career can keep cognitive abilities sharp, at least until you stop doing that type of work.

“Since we’re in Seattle, we’ve looked at engineers who worked for Boeing. And we see as long as they are in the workforce, they seem to have very good spatial orientation ability,” Willis said. “However, we have seen that as these engineers retire, they also seem to not get the mental stimulation their job afforded… so we do see decline there.”

But Willis also said that as long as you are still working, abilities can be maintained, which is something she saw happen to the Boeing workers and their spatial orientation skills.

“Obviously the experiences and the challenges they have in their work do contribute to their maintaining these abilities,” Willis said.

But an engineering job at Boeing isn’t the only way to keep your mind active. Willis said there’s many types of mental exercise that can be done to keep the brain sharp. She said it’s similar to keeping physically fit.

“I would suggest staying mentally active but in a variety of activities. I like to draw the analogy to physical exercise. In physical exercise there’s aerobic training, flexibility training and strength training. And so, the same principle applies in cognitive training, in that there are different abilities, so you need to cross-train, so to speak,” Willis said. “So verbal ability might be great for crossword puzzles, but spatial orientation might be better trained by some kind of hand craft.”

But Willis said a crossword puzzle or memory game every once in a while won’t be enough to keep mental abilities strong. In this case, consistency is important.

“The main thing is to keep at it. You can get a boost in training, but it will dissipate, it’s not a vaccine. So choose a variety of activities and be persistent. Stay with it.”