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Mental verses Physical – which activities are more important for enriching older brains?

Keeping the mind sharp and the body active have to be the key goals for all of us as we get older. But with the press reporting on what seems like an endless stream of studies and reports that extol the virtues of one particular form of activity or therapy over another, it can become all too easy to get swept up in the hype.

So, is one activity better than others at warding off the symptoms of dementia ?

Should we be prioritising mental stimulation over physical exercise?
Or is physical fitness more beneficial than the mental challenge of problem-solving puzzles?

The answer is a resounding NO according to a research study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Mental AND physical exercise prove equally valuable in the quest to keep thinking skills in, and dementia out.

In the American study, 126 seniors were divided into groups with each group embarking on a programme of either computer activities, aerobics, watching educational DVDs or stretching exercises. At the end of the 12 week trial, the participants from all groups demonstrated improved thinking scores.

What surprised researchers was the lack of any real difference in improvement between groups. When it comes to stimulating the brain, it appears that it is not the type of activity that matters, but the amount of it.

This research reinforces numerous studies, conducted in both the US and UK, that have demonstrated the benefits of both mental and physical exercise on brain function.

Evidence suggests that older people who take physical exercise regularly display less brain shrinkage and brain lesions which can indicate dementia. It’s therefore likely that physical activity, by stimulating the production of blood vessels and new brain cells, increases the volume of the parts of the brain responsible for memory and thinking.

Similarly, activities that provide mental stimulation such as crosswords, playing chess, reading the newspaper, participating in clubs and pursuing hobbies also improve cognitive health as people age.

As a result most health experts now agree that a common sense approach of maintaining a balance of both mental and physical activity is the best way forward, recommending aiming for two and a half hours each week of moderate intensity exercise combined with mental exercises to stay sharp.