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Why You Need Mental Aerobics

By Sunnivie Brydum

It’s common knowledge that as we age, our brains slow down. But research shows that for HIV-positive adults, that forgetfulness—formally called cognitive impairment—can start to appear earlier and more severely than it does for the average person.

“Thirty to 60 percent of adults with HIV experience cognitive problems, a condition known as

‘HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders,’ ” explains David E. Vance, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Nursing. He says it’s critical for people with HIV to be proactive in addressing cognitive problems, because “these issues can lead to difficulties in working and living independently.”

But there’s hope. Vance led a 2012 study that found brain exercises dramatically improve intellectual function in HIVers over 50. That’s good news for the nation’s HIV-positive population, a majority of whom will be over 50 by 2015.

“Just like when you exercise your muscle, it increases the size. The brain works similarly,” explains Vance.

Vance’s study looked at 46 adults with HIV and randomly assigned participants to either 10 hours of computer-based “speed of processing” training or no training at all. Vance found that nearly 90% of his subjects who received training saw an improvement in the scope of visual information their brains could understand. This is known as the visual field of processing, and it’s a  mental process necessary in life. Vance says previous studies found that adults with a broader visual field of processing  have fewer car accidents.

“A split second when you’re driving can be the difference between life and death,” Vance explains.  

Participants in Vance’s study used an intellectual exercise set housed at BrainHQ.PositScience.com. But according to Vance, more important than the specific exercises is that the activities “make your brain sweat.”

The newer the activity, the better, says Vance. “So if you are already doing crossword puzzles…why don’t you try Sudoku puzzles instead?”

Training your brain doesn’t have to be a solitary activity, though. “Social interaction itself is a wonderful cognitive tool,” says Vance, noting that figuring out what to say next in a conversation is highly stimulating for the brain.  

“This is brain science,” says Vance, “but it’s not that complicated.”

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