Aging brains can still be growing brains

Trainer offers strategies to build neuropathways






Vancouver resident Clyde McGuire, 88, slid some checkers on a graph in an attempt to copy a pattern made by cognitive trainer Debra Ochoa.

The game is called “Copy Cat,” Ochoa explained. “It strengthens working memory and short-term memory, logic and reasoning and focus and attention,” Ochoa said.

Even at age 88, it’s not too late to strengthen the brain, Ochoa said.

Aging isn’t all about brain deterioration, said Cory Bolkan, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver.

“While there is some intellectual decline with age, there are also areas of growth and stability in intelligence,” Bolkan said. “This highlights the importance of challenging the myths of aging often common in society because more recent scientific evidence supports the idea that growth is possible in old age.”

McGuire, 88, holds out hope he can strengthen his brain. He joined Ochoa’s eight-week class, called Brain Buzz, at Vancouver’s Kamlu Retirement Inn to try some brain exercises.

“I was hoping to get my brain fired up,” McGuire said with a smile. “I can’t remember nothing anymore.”

Intellectual decline varies by

person. However, researchers have noted that older people generally show a greater capacity for “crystallized intelligence,” which is built from past experiences and socialization, Bolkan said. For example, researchers have found that older people have better vocabularies than their younger counterparts, according to research by Paul Verhaeghen, associate professor of psychology at Georgia Tech.

Vancouver resident Armour Bolen, 75, said he has noticed his vocabulary and long-term memory have improved in age.

“My short-term memory is going fast,” said Bolen, a student in Ochoa’s class.

Younger people generally have better “fluid intelligence,” the ability to perform new tasks and solve novel problems, such as a math riddle, quickly, Bolkan said.

Fluid abilities decline with time, but crystallized abilities stabilize and grow, she said.

For instance, the mean age of top chess players in tournaments, which are timed, is about 30, Bolkan said. The mean age for the best players in correspondence chess, where players may take up to three days to make a move, is 46.

“The good news is that most real-world experiences do not require high-level fluid abilities, so our crystallized abilities can compensate for those potential declines/losses later in life,” Bolkan said.

And there are ways to maintain and improve brain function.

“We tend to let it all hang out when we retire,” Ochoa said. “We think we don’t need to think as hard. We don’t have to do the same work we did before, but we need to keep the brain active. For some, that may mean discovering dance. Others might start reading, learning a new language or traveling.”

When the brain is idle, it unwires itself, losing neuropathways, Ochoa said.

“When (neuropathways are) not used, they fade away and lose strength,” she said. “A lot of people, when they retire, take a break. They enjoy TV or enjoy doing nothing. But there is truth to the saying: ‘Use it or lose it.’”

The good news is, it’s possible to build new neuropathways, Ochoa said.

The first rule is to challenge the brain.

“The brain loves novelty,” Ochoa said. “It loves to discover, and it grows strong by learning new things.”

Try a new activity. When that activity is comfortable, increase the difficulty. When the activity is mastered, set it aside for six months and start again later, Ochoa said. Personal trainers offer similar advice to people who exercise their bodies: Change up the routine every six to eight weeks.

“A lot of people think crossword puzzles help your brain,” Ochoa said. “They’re good, but they don’t really strengthen the brain unless you continually increase the difficulty.”

Another brain risk is social isolation. About 23.7 percent of Clark County seniors 65 and older live alone, according to the Census Bureau. Without social interaction, a senior may be more prone to forget the names of things they use every day, she said.

One 79-year-old woman once asked Ochoa for help because she couldn’t remember the names of roses she used to know. “I asked her, ‘Who do you talk to about the roses?’ ‘No one.’ ‘There you go.’”

She encourages seniors to seek out social interaction. An alternative is to talk to oneself, she said.

“Give yourself 10 minutes a day,” she said. “Walk down the street and give everything a name. It’s important to say it out loud.”

Ochoa teaches eight-week brain-strengthening courses in Portland and Vancouver, including Kamlu and Crossroads Community Church.

Another exercise she has taught at Kamlu is “Clap Snap Tap.” Ochoa asked students to clap to a beat she played on her laptop. After students were on beat, she asked them to count to 40. Then, she asked to count backwards from 40 to 1.

“The games are really complicated, because it requires concentration and memory,” said Almerna Dever, 85. “She is good, but I’m so dense,” she quipped. “I’m hoping it would do something for my brain.”

Other tips for brain strength:

nExercise. The brain needs nourishment. Exercise increases blood flow to the body, including the brain.

nEat a balanced diet. Get plenty of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains and fish. Take a fish oil supplement.

nManage stress. One of the best ways is to socialize.

nPlay brain games. For at least 10 minutes a day, do a brain exercise. Have a meal with your eyes closed and savor the flavors to strengthen the senses. Or describe an object without saying what it is. Go to the Dollar Tree and pick up a large-print Sudoku book. Ochoa recommends the kind that become more challenging with each game.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551;;;