In a cheery room in Cockeysville, two dozen people sit with their heads down, focused on the papers in front of them. The only sound is the scratching of pencils on paper.
The sight triggers memories of school days, but this is no group of middle schoolers eking their way through a math class pop quiz. It's the Brain Aerobics class at Broadmead Senior Living Community.
Once a week, speech pathologist Chuck Warnke leads the class through a variety of mental activities, including riddles, word games and history puzzles — one activity challenged class members to remember the prices of products, from a gallon of milk to a pair of women's leather boots, from 1972.
Like regular aerobics, Brain Aerobics is all about working out. "It's a set of exercises that engage as many different parts of the brain as possible," explains Warnke, who launched the Broadmead class about four years ago.
As the U.S. population ages, brain health is an increasingly hot topic. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease — that includes 1 in 8 older Americans.
"Three-quarters of people over 80 don't have memory problems at all," says Dr. Michael Ankrom, a geriatrician at GBMC Greater Gilchrist. "But it's an understandable fear. None of us want to not be in control of our environment — and that's essentially what dementia does."
To stay as mentally fit as possible, Ankrom recommends that his patients stay physically fit, get enough sleep, stay hydrated — and engage in mental activities like Brain Aerobics.
"We often think of the brain like we think of muscles — use it or lose it," says Ankrom. "That's not totally true, but we do get foggy. Like with math — if you don't use it every day, it's harder to do."
The best brain-stimulating activities are enjoyable and social, say Warnke and Ankrom.
Warnke points out that while solitary activities (like crossword puzzles or reading) are valuable, they are not as mentally challenging as activities that force interaction with others, or that jar people out of their everyday routines.
"Something you do repetitively, like a crossword every day, is good for you, but it's not a Brain Aerobics activity," he explains. "Brain Aerobics is new and challenging, not easy or passive.
"You can't prepare for social elements" of interaction, warns Warnke. "And when you react to someone, that's when your brain is really flashing."
Ankrom says he has to figure out "what motivates a person" to find activities they'll embrace. He tries to "get them to reconnect with things they've enjoyed before" to ensure that they stick with the activity.
Local senior-living homes work hard to identify activities that will appeal to their communities, says Terri Hanlon, manager of activities at Roland Park Place.
"We have a lot of academics here," she says. "They want to continue doing the things they used to do, so we bring in teachers and Peabody musicians. I worked at a different facility where people loved bingo. But here, they played once and that was it. It was not a part of their lifestyles when they were younger."
At Heartlands Assisted Living in Severna Park, activities director Linda Seegmuller runs a "brain learning experience" program that is both popular and literal. "We talked about the parts of the brain and how you can use different games and puzzles to stay sharp."
At Broadmead, Warnke and his Brain Aerobics class openly discuss the benefits of what they're doing. "It keeps your mind alert — hopefully!" laughs Dorothy Sinclair, a Broadmead resident who frequently attends Brain Aerobics.
The people who go to Brain Aerobics "aren't afraid to understand the brain's need to be challenged and pushed," says Warnke. "Your brain health is not a passive event. Most have the personality that they're out there — they want to be as good as they can for as long as they can. They don't stick their heads in the sand or avoid doctors."
Broadmead residents seeking even more of a challenge can sign up for Brain University. "Research shows you need to exercise your brain at least four days a week for at least 20 minutes," says Warnke.
Brain Aerobics is once a week, but Brain University class members receive four assignments to complete over seven days. Assignments — like doing everything with your non-dominant hand or writing a letter to the editor — are designed to encourage critical thinking and stimulate the brain on a deep level.
"Research shows that it's not so much aging, but the dropoff in brain use" that affects mental acuity, says Warnke. "You can be a very active retiree, but if you do the same thing every day, you won't use the critical thinking and stimulation you use when you're working or raising a family."
Brain science is a complicated topic and the success of programs like Brain Aerobics can be difficult to measure. "The outcome is often based on perceived function and quality of life," says Ankrom. "It's hard to say you'll be able to answer 'Jeopardy' questions faster."
Still, Warnke says that his longtime class members "haven't required any involvement in therapy or in doctor's offices for memory or cognitive function. They're very sharp."
That clarity sometimes comes back to haunt him. "If there's a typo or if something's not perfect," he laughs, "they are right on top of it."
Pointing out the teacher's errors. Just like middle school.
Identifying the best brain activities
Not all brain activities are created equal, but the most challenging and effective programs share several characteristics. Broadmead speech pathologist Chuck Warnke recommends online resources like Luminosity, Posit Science and Dakim for inspiration and ideas.
Look for activities that:
Focus on Your interests: Find ways to turn current hobbies into brain-charging activities. "What do you do for fun?" asks GBMC Greater Gilchrist geriatrician Dr. Michael Ankrom. Enjoyable activities are easier to stick with, he says.
Help you connect: According to Ankrom, one of the best ways to challenge the brain is to encourage interaction with others, even if that means simply finding a buddy for daily walks. "A group activity with social aspects lights up the brain," he says.
Emphasize the process: At Broadmead, Warnke reminds his Brain Aerobics class that right and wrong answers don't matter. As long as you're thinking, the brain is active.
Mix it up: Even if you find one brain-stimulating activity you enjoy, keep looking for others. Variety is key to a healthy brain.
Exercise your brain at home
For his Brain University Class at Broadmead Senior Living Community, speech pathologist Chuck Warnke assigns "homework" that helps class members use their brain in new ways. Try an assignment at home to challenge your brain — and to have fun!
Dinner out: Warnke suggests approaching new cuisines as a restaurant reviewer might. "If you've never had Indian food before, go to a restaurant. Look at the sights and smells. Approach it as a critique."
Write it out: Some weeks, Warnke asks his class to write letters to the editors of local publications or to the mayor or other government officials. This activity require critical thinking skills, which keep the brain active and functioning.
Opposite day: A favorite activity at Broadmead, during Opposite Day, class members do everything with their non-dominant hand, requiring them to use new parts of their brain to complete everyday tasks, like brushing their teeth.
Tell a story: Go to the library, says Warnke, and choose a fiction book. "Flip to the middle and read for 10 minutes. Then spend 10 minutes writing about what you'd like to see happen for the rest of the book."
Shop around: Break out of daily routines by visiting a new grocery store. Repetitive activity allows the brain to be passive, while doing something new forces the brain to shift into active gear.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun