Robert E. Reichlin, Ph.D.

Houston Psychologist ∙ Psychotherapist ∙ Geropsychologist ∙Bellaire, Texas

Cognitive Fitness

Wednesday, June 24th 2009

If you’re over 50, everyone is talking about Sudoku and crossword puzzles, learning languages or a musical instrument as means to protect the brain and possibly prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However, at present, there is no known way of preventing AD or curing it. Given that fact, is there anything we can do to improve our memory or conserve our cognitive skills? To my way of thinking, one way to answer this question is to broaden our scope and consider how our life style choices impact cognitive and emotional health. In this way we can identify goals that can become part of how we live our lives. In this post, let’s talk about cognitive fitness.

Research in the neurosciences has demonstrated that the cliché, use it or lose it, probably holds true. And, there are some things we do know that are more specific. For example there are two rough categories of learning that are being suggested. One has a maintenance function: practicing what you know helps you maintain that skill. So, if you’re a little rusty on multiplication (in your head rather than on a calculator), practicing will bring back previous skills. Same with crossword puzzles: if you’ve always done them, then you are maintaining your skill and not learning something totally new (e.g. Dean Olser on NPR, All Things Considered, June 23, 2009, Maintaining skills is important and creating routines that result in practicing skills is the kind of creative adaptation necessary in middle and late adulthood.

Learning something that’s completely new to you is a different matter: drawing, learning the guitar, developing a new sport, etc. There are many, many things on the menu. Take a look at Anne Underwood’s article, Can Dementia Be Prevented?” She points out that what matters seems to be that the learning be complex, engaging a variety of cognitive skills. For example, learning to play a musical instrument requires that we learn to listen differently, attending to how sounds relate to each other and to the melody, how sounds can be represented in musical notation, learning about tempo and how that is represented visually, etc. Oh yeah, one has to practice like crazy because one’s hands and eyes have to work together in new ways. Challenging!

That practice and new learning are likely to improve cognitive fitness should come as no surprise: the brain is an organ of the body, and we know ‘physical fitness’ improves our health. Why should the brain be any different? The issue is: are you going to take deliberate action designed to improve your cognitive fitness?

Thank you for reading this post.

If you find that my perspective on cognitive fitness makes sense to you, and you are considering psychotherapy, send me an email or give me a call and we can schedule an appointment.

Contact Houston Psychologist Dr. Robert Reichlin at 281-813-7202;

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Robert E. Reichlin, Ph.D.