Why is it that we care about how to keep our cars in top shape (oil changes, tire pressure, frequent cleaning…) more than about ensuring our brains – the physical basis for our minds – perform at their peak?
A spate of recent news coverage on brain fitness and “brain training” has missed an important constituency: younger people. Recent advancements in brain science have as tremendous implications for teenagers and adults of all ages as they do for seniors.
In a recent conversation with neuroscientist Yaakov Stern of Columbia University, he related how surprised he was when, years ago, a reporter from Seventeen magazine requested an interview. The reporter told Dr. Stern that he wanted to write an article to motivate kids to stay in school and not to drop out, in order to start building their Cognitive Reserve early and age more gracefully.
What is the Cognitive Reserve?
Research since the 90s shows that individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives, through their education, their jobs, and also their hobbies, build a “Cognitive Reserve” in their brains. Stimulating the brain can literally generate new neurons and strengthen their connections which results in better brain performance and in having a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms.
As astounding as these insights may be, most Americans still devote more time to changing the oil, taking a car to a mechanic, or washing it, than thinking about how to maintain, if not improve, their brain performance. Not enough young and middle-aged people are benefiting from this emerging research, since it has been perceived as something “for seniors.” Granted, there are still many unknowns in the world of brain fitness and cognitive training. We need more research, better assessments and tools. But, this does not mean we cannot start caring for our brains today.
As Atul Gawande wrote in “The Way We Age Now: Can medicine serve an aging population?” (The New Yorker, April 30th, 2007):
“For most of our hundred-thousand-year existence—all but the past couple of hundred years—the average life span of human beings has been thirty years or less. (Research suggests that subjects of the Roman Empire had an average life expectancy of twenty-eight years.)”
Inheritance has surprisingly little influence on longevity. James Vaupel, of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, in Rostock, Germany, notes that only 6 per cent of how long you’ll live, compared with the average, is explained by your parents’ longevity; by contrast, up to 90 per cent of how tall you are, compared with the average, is explained by your parents’ height. Even genetically identical twins vary widely in life span: the typical gap is more than fifteen years.
This is why brain maintenance is to important: to make sure our brains last as long as the rest of our bodies.
What can we do to maintain our brain? Focus on four pillars of brain health: ensure frequent physical exercise, eat a balanced diet, learn effective stress management techniques, and get a constant flow of brain exercise. Stress management is important since stress has been shown to actually kill neurons and reduce the rate of creation of new ones. Brain exercises range from low-tech (i.e. meditation, mastering new complex skills…) to high-tech (i.e. using the growing number of brain games).
Let me offer some more specific guidance:
1. Physical Exercise
Physical exercise has been shown to enhance brain physiology in animals and, more recently, in humans. Exercise improves learning through increased blood supply and growth hormones.
If you can only do one thing, focus on cardiovascular training—exercise that gets your heart beating faster, like walking, running, skiing, swimming, biking, hiking, tennis, basketball, playing tag, and ultimate Frisbee.
2. Balanced Diet
As a general guideline, what is good for your body is also good for your brain. Eat a variety of foods of different colors while avoiding foods with added ingredients or processed foods. It is worth noting that few supplements have shown long-term benefits on memory and other cognitive functions.
Also, try adding some cold-water fish to your diet (tuna, salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, and herring) which contain omega-3 fatty acids. If you can only focus on one change, eat more vegetables, particularly leafy green ones.
3. Stress Management
Since chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit the creation of new neurons, stress management is important. Practice meditation, yoga, or other calming activities as a way to take a relaxing time-out. If you want a more high-tech option, use biofeedback devices that measure heart rate variability and allow you to see your levels of stress in real-time. If you can only do one thing, set aside 5-10 minutes to just breathe deeply and recharge.
4. Brain Exercise
Mental exercise can accelerate the rate that new neurons are created and enhance the chances of their survival. It also strengthens the synapses or connections among neurons, thus improving overall cognitive functioning.
The 3 key principles for good brain exercise are:
- Novelty: you need to try new things, including things you aren’t good at.
- Variety: given that the brain is composed of a variety of functionally distinct areas, you need to ensure a complete mental “workout circuit” to maintain sharpness in all areas. Excessive specialization is not the best strategy for our long-term Brain Health.
- Challenge: you need to be exposed to increasing levels of challenge, so the task is never too easy.
If you can only do one thing, learn something new every day, no matter how small.
I know, this is starting to sound like those lists we all know are good for us but we actually don’t do. Let me make it easier to start: every time you devote time to car maintenance chores, simply ask yourself, “What have I done lately to maintain my brain?”
This article was written by Alvaro Fernandez, the Co-Founder of SharpBrains.com, a leading Brain Fitness blog and consulting company. Alvaro is a nationally-recognized Speaker on the latest applications of neuroscience research.