Neil Wolkodoff of the Colorado Center for Health and Sports Science says that your brain is just like any other muscle in your body: it needs to be exercised. Since not everyone comes to the center for sports or coordination training, Wolkodoff had a few, simple recommendations that can help in every day life.
• Play Games. Chess and Sudoku are two great means of increasing those neural connections. Card games are also helpful if they have a strategy, like poker.
• Change of Hand. Do as many things as possible with the other hand compared to your normal dominant hand. For example, unlock and lock the front door with your non-dominant hand. When reaching for a piece of silverware, reach and grasp with the non-dominant hand.
• Alphabet Soup. When stopped in a parking lot, see the license plate in front of you, close your eyes and then recall the license plate out loud. If time permits look again and recall the license plate, but backwards.
• Word of the Day. Pick a word, and translate that word into a foreign language on your computer. Repeat the word three times, then again at 20 minutes and 60 minutes. This helps short-term memory become long-term memory.
• New Exercise. At the gym, watch someone lifting free weights. Take an exercise you normally do, such as military press on the machines, and do that with dumbbells instead. Try one new exercise per session, and always start with the lightest weight possible, and ask for help from staff if unsure of the movement.
My eyes followed numbered circles on a computer screen, seeking out the right sequence. Then I pushed lighted buttons as they flashed and wore special glasses to pick out circles either further away or closer to me.
The tests at the Colorado Center for Health and Sports Science (CCHSS) may feel like games at first, but the results are meant to help people get a better idea of how their brain is functioning, Director Neil Wolkodoff said.
The CCHSS is located inside the Next Level Strength gym at 2570 S. Colorado Blvd. Wolkodoff’s office is a long room filled with different equipment used for testing brain function.
The tests can help people track their brain function and determine whether it’s where it needs to be for their age. This can give older people a heads up for declines in brain function, which can be an early sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.
But the tests can help athletes, too, Wolkodoff said. In training, factors like depth perception and reaction time can affect performance.
Exercising your brain can be just as important as other muscles, he said. “When you think about the eyes and the brain and the sensory system, those are all things that have a certain trainability, just like your biceps.”
I was a teenager when my grandmother was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I began researching the different ways doctors recommended holding brain decay at bay. Diet, exercise and even dental hygiene made the list. After speaking with Wolkodoff about the CCHSS, I could see how these tests could benefit a family like mine where several members of the older generation had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My dad, as well as his brothers and cousins, could get an inside view on their brain function early on — and maybe even do something about it.
I was excited — and very nervous — to take the test myself.
Wolkodoff asked me to wear tennis shoes as well as clothes I was comfortable moving in. Most people should expect to spend about an hour in his office.
In the first test, Wolkodoff placed a cap full of sensors on my head. The sensors tracked the electric waves in my brain. Looking at a heat map after the tests, Wolkodoff asked if I had ever hit my head on the left side — I had. When I was in third grade, I had fallen off a playground clibming set and suffered a minor concussion. Sure enough, right in the area where I hit my head was a blue patch on the map where my brain doesn’t function quite as strongly.
Several more tests looked at how I kept track of items in a group (great) and my depth perception (not so great). The visual sports skills test can help athletes determine what areas they need more training in, but the skills are applicable in every day life as well, Wolkodoff said.
“Because it’s a combination of different tests that you put together to get the profile for the person, you’re going to probably uncover something that they didn’t know about themselves,” he said. “One example could be `Gee, I didn’t know that my depth perception is poor, maybe that’s why I’m not driving well.’ ”
Wolkodoff also offers speed tests for eye and foot coordination, which, blessedly, my two left feet did not take that day.
As I sat in Wolkodoff’s office doing the tests I tried to suppress the anxiety that my brain could already be showing signs of decay. While there were certainly results I could work on, Wolkodoff said my brain function is where it should be. One of his recommendations for improving some of the visual tests was to wear glasses that filter out blue light since I use computer screens for much of my job.
After taking the tests, people can work on training their brains, improving mental clarity or different visual skills. Over time, people can come in and re-take the tests to track their improvement.
One of the areas in which people see most improvement, Wolkodoff said, is driving. People who took the tests noticed cars slowing in front of them more quickly or had a better grasp on where cars were around them.
While the increase in people with dementia or Alzheimer’s may be on the rise in part because people are living longer, Wolkodoff said that it may also be because people aren’t getting as much mental stimulation: Continuing to challenge your brain helps keep it fit.
“Part of the reason people aren’t as good mentally or as good with their reaction time as they get older,” Wolkodoff said, “is they simply don’t challenge themselves in the kind of ways they used to.”
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