DALLAS — Growing old is just a fact of life. But does that mean our brain has to get old too?

That’s what Pat Shannon and I are going to find out on our journey together. She’s a great-grandma, a retired flight attendant and looks nothing like she’s 80 years old.

And here’s the question she wants answered: “Brain Exercises — will they help me retain memory? It's slipping, hesitation, quick recall,” she said.

BRAIN EXPERTS

Pat and I are starting our journey at The Center for Brain Health, in Dallas. Stacy Vernon is checking our brain function by giving us a series of tests. She’s a clinician here with experience in neuropsychological and psychological assessment.

The first thing we're learning is not to get hung up on the word “memory." She's saying what can be trained, that's more helpful for you than memory, is brain function.

“Think of the brain working much better as a processor of information than a storage unit of information,” Vernon said.

The Center for Brain Health uses a training strategy called SMART: Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training. They teach it to adults, kids, CEOs, veterans and more.

And here’s the idea behind it:

  • Unlike multi-tasking, where your brain is bouncing between several unrelated things, Vernon says you exercise your brain by eliminating distractions and identifying just one thing to work on.
  • Now that you’re focused on your one thing, go deep into observation mode.  What does this thing look like? Feel like? Sound like?
  • Once you’re seeing the thing in a deeper way, try connecting it with other ideas, concepts and theories you know about.
  • Finally, by re-assembling the thing together with outside concepts, the brain can make something new.

“Being able to focus on what's critical and block out what's unnecessary enables our brain to do what it does best, which is process information at a deep level,” Vernon said.

The results of the largest study on brain training, in the Journal of American Medicine, back up the idea that the brain can be trained. Its findings "support the effectiveness and durability of the cognitive training interventions in improving targeted cognitive abilities."

“How can I maintain this vigor and enhance it? And counteract the diminishment?” Shannon asked Vernon.

“What we find is, when we engage folks in brain training, is improvements in not only performance but in the health and structure of the brain,” Vernon said.

What did Shannon and I think about what we learned at the Center?

“Doing a crossword puzzle or playing chess is not this kind of deep brain work,” I said to Shannon.

“Correct. There's not one silver bullet. It's a whole array of ammunition, to use that analogy,” Shannon said.

“It's a way of seeing the world,” I said.

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

Bonnie Pitman is the former director of the Dallas Museum of Art. Now she teaches at the Center for Brain Health about the connection between art and brain. 

What Pat wants to know is, how do we put what we’ve just learned into practice?

“Eighty percent of what we learn is through our eyes,” Pitman told us as we took a seat on a bench at the DMA and she began to walk us through a method she developed, called The Power of Observation Framework.

Pitman had us briefly scan this painting, called The Icebergs. Then lock in on one spot and study it deeply.

“Slowing down and focusing without judgement,” Pitman said.

Next, we did more deep thinking by connecting the painting to what we know about icebergs. Ideas about weather, history and climate change give context and lead to new thoughts. 

Last, Pitman asked us to put ourselves in a spot, inside the painting.

“Think about where you are. What your feet feel like. What does your body feel like? Are you pulling your coat closer? Opening it up because you think it's warm weather? What do you hear? What sounds do you hear? What do you smell? Do you taste anything?” Pitman asked.

“I am at the base of the mast. My feet are so cold,” Shannon said. “I'm all in down. I have fur on. But it's still cold. And my nose is cold."

And me?

“I'm wearing a hat. Got a jacket on. Hear the snow crunch under my feet. Wearing glacier glasses. I can smell the sea air. Hear it lapping against the glacier,” I added.

As we neared the end of time, Shannon asked Pitman one more question.

“And when people do this, they notice a difference in their life?" 

“Yes. It is effective. Like learning anything new, it takes effort and it takes practice. You can't do it once, say that was great and think you'll remember it,” Pitman said.

BEYOND BRAIN TRAINING

Can brain training be about more than the brain? Shannon and I are at the Cooper Clinic talking to Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a long-time leader in the field of health and wellness.

“Does physical exercise keep our brains physically fit as well as our bodies physically fit?” Shannon asked.

“The studies show that the only thing that’s been proven over the years to prevent the early onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia is exercise,” Cooper said.

Cooper's talking about a 2014 study from the journal "Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience," which found, for people at increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, that "physical activity may help to preserve" the hippocampus, a part of the brain important for memory.

“I'm 48. Should I be doing that now?” I asked Cooper. 

“Yes," he said. "Remember it starts 20 years before you have symptoms."

What does he recommend? Cooper has Seven Steps to Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease:

  1. Exercise your mind daily. Solve crossword puzzles, play musical instruments, use a computer and delay retirement.
  2. Exercise your body daily. Thirty minutes of sustained or collective physical activity most days of the week. Avoid inactivity.
  3. Socialize. Join a club, go to the theater or just get out of the house.
  4. Get adequate sleep, which should be approximately seven hours per night.
  5. Take omega-3. 1,000 mg twice a day and/or consume two servings of fatty fish per week.
  6. Take vitamin D3. 2,000 IU daily.
  7. Take vitamin B12. 400 mcg daily.

Cooper’s advice is based, in part, on a Finnish study from 2015. For two years, people in the study ate a healthy diet, completed muscular and cardiovascular training and focused on brain training exercises. In comparison to the control group, the group that changed its habits:

  • Scored 25 percent higher in testing situations,
  • 83 percent higher in executive function and
  • 150 percent higher in processing speed

“I'm convinced we have so much we can do if we take care of ourselves," Cooper said. "Your health is your responsibility."

CONCLUSION

So, we learned brain training is less about memory and more about brain function, and that you need to see the world in a different way. Also, exercise is critical to keeping your mind sharp.

And what does Pat Shannon think?

“Does brain training work?” I asked her.

“The experts verified that it really does work,” she said.

Don't take my word for it — take hers.