When 65-year-old Paul Person was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease this year, the first thing he did was contact a personal trainer — not for his body, but for his brain.
Though somewhat limited by a heart condition, Person has always been physically active, walking about two miles each day. He is also a regular golfer. But now his daily routine includes about an hour of “brain aerobics” — vocal cord exercises, exaggerated movements, word games and other mind-stimulating activity he can fit into his regular life, like moving money from one pocket to the other while he walks.
“Another one is reading some sentences at the same time that I bounce a tennis ball,” Person said. “That’s one I find difficult.”
Person’s personal brain fitness trainer is Tucson physical therapist and neuroscientist Becky Farley, who is part of a growing movement of health experts emphasizing mental fitness, or “neurobics,” — a phrase popularized by late neurobiologist Lawrence Katz to describe mental exercises that do for the brain what aerobics does for the body.
But like physical fitness, brain fitness takes effort and discipline. Boredom and complacency are to be avoided.
While Farley mainly focuses on specific exercises for people who have diagnoses of Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s, she’s hoping to expand the practice she’s developing — Southwest NeuroGym — to include the general senior citizen population. Her biggest emphasis is on challenging people. If it’s not difficult, then it’s not effective, she said.
“If it doesn’t feel hard, you are not working hard enough,” Farley said.
Farley, who is working with the local Mid-Valley Athletic Club, is not the only local person advocating cognitive calisthenics. The Fairwinds Desert Point retirement community has a brain fitness area in its gym, and a 2-year-old business called MindWorks Studio focuses solely on mental fitness.
Nationally, there’s a growing number of brain fitness companies with names like Happy Neuron Inc., CogniFit Ltd. and Vibrant Brains.
“A generation ago, exercise training revolutionized our notion of aging and physical decline. It is now accepted that most of the physical decline we experience as we age is unnatural, resulting from a lack of exercise,” said Dr. Michael J. Maximov, an internist with Saguaro Physicians in Tucson who works closely with Tucson Medical Center’s Senior Services.
“Now, a similar revolution is occurring in the realm of brain health. It may be that much of our mental decline is due to a lack of brain exercise and is not entirely a natural process.”
At Fairwinds Desert Point in Oro Valley, residents are taking part in a national computer program through a company called Posit Science Corp. that requires a one-hour daily commitment, five days per week for eight weeks.
“It’s like working out, so you need rest days,” Fairwinds activities coordinator Elizabeth Sims. said.
The program has games and challenges with increasing levels of difficulty, including deciphering word sounds, recalling sequences of objects and reading comprehension.
The age of Sims’ students has ranged from 74 to 104. “The senior population starts to get very weary when they realize they are forgetting words. They become reclusive and don’t want to engage. They don’t want to look silly,” Sims said. “But you can recover brain vitality.”
Seventy-six-year-old Fairwinds resident Barbara Gilbert is the cognitive equivalent of a gym rat. She’s completed two eight-week Posit Science courses and now feels comfortable using a computer. She’s also hopeful she’s sharpened her memory.
“I read a lot, and I play cards twice per week, but I wanted to test myself,” she said. “I take care of myself, of all my affairs, and I would love to keep it that way.”
Eighty-eight-year-old June McNichols and her 91-year-old husband, Bill, recently completed their first eight-week session.
“If it will do anything to help the memory at this stage in the game, it’s well worth the time,” June McNichols said.
Another Fairwinds resident, 79-year-old Barbara Saltzman, said the exercises improved her attention to small details and sharpened her driving.
Indeed, brain fitness is often touted as helping seniors maintain spatial and speed reaction times necessary for safe driving.
“You use it or lose it,” Saltzman said.
The notion of a brain gym is increasingly appealing to a demographic of people who are already interested in being physically active, said L’Don Sawyer, manager of senior services at Tucson Medical Center.
Sawyer’s department has been offering brain fitness for about two and a half years.
“The things being taught are oftentimes what we knew throughout life — we’re just thinking about them differently,” she said. “It’s like the game ‘categories’ that kids play on car trips . . . You can be in a grocery store and think of naming U.S. states that begin with A.”
Brain gym exercises often advocate multitasking. For example, Sawyer likes to say number problems aloud while hiking — like six times two minus three, and then spelling out the answer.
Farley stresses physical fitness as the starting point for better mental acuity. She cites studies that show children who exercise in the morning fare better on tests held sooner after the workout rather than later.
Doing nothing is a recipe for faster aging, she said.
“When you do nothing and are negative, it’s all a domino effect,” she said. “If you are active you will have an active mind, too.”
Similarly, MindWorks Studio owner Deborah DuSold tells clients the first step toward brain fitness is a healthy body.
DuSold uses Posit Science computer programs, as well as a method of brain-wave biofeedback that monitors the brain’s rhythms in conjunction with video games and music to improve cognitive skills.
“I’ve put my mother through the Posit Science programs — she’s 87 and she recently beat out a 40-year-old,” DuSold said. “We can maintain brain fitness into our 90s and 100s. And when you keep up the cognitive skills your mood goes through the roof. The same chemicals we use to learn and keep us sharp also keep us happy.”
When he looks back, Paul Person believes he’s probably had Parkinson’s for the past year or two. Family pictures show his head drooping, and his smile not quite as big as it once was. His wife, Patty, said he shuffled when he walked. And he was dropping things, like cutlery.
But she’s noticed a difference since her husband began doing Farley’s exercises. A retired engineer, Person is methodical and disciplined. When he was on vacation in Hawaii for three weeks, he did his brain exercises every day, said Patty, who is 54. The couple also does tai chi and avoids television.
Now, Paul’s smile is bigger, he stands up taller, his head droops less and he’s not dropping things as often, his wife said.
“I see you going back to normal life more,” Patty said to her husband last week as they sat at the kitchen table of their Tucson-area home.
“Some days I don’t feel like I have Parkinson’s at all,” Paul said.