Your brain health impacts everything you do – every thought, word, action, behavior, and feeling – literally everything. Most of us know less about the command center in our heads, with its amazing abilities surpassing the most sophisticated computer, than we do our smartphones.
Because your brain effects all aspects of your life from health and happiness to relationships and your ability to function in the world, it makes sense to learn about and take care of it. With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and that number projected to triple by 2050, brain health is of major concern to most everyone. (See Your Brain’s Future: The Good And Bad News)
There’s a lot of misinformation out there and persistent brain myths that just won’t go away. (See Busting Brain Myths) Your brain doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. So, you have to educate yourself about what is arguably the most important organ in your body.
The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age, by Alvaro Fernandez, Elkhonon Goldberg PhD, and Pascale Michelon PhD, separates “hype from hope in the brain health arena” by providing the latest science-based information to tell you how to optimize your brain health and function across your lifespan. Below are some brain fitness facts the authors share:
Basic Brain Health Facts
- There is not only one “It ” in “Use it or lose it.” The brain is composed of a number of specialized units. Our life and productivity depend on a variety of brain functions, not just one.
- Genes do not determine the fate of our brains. Lifelong neuroplasticity allows our lifestyles and actions to play a meaningful role in how our brains physically evolve, especially given longer life expectancy.
- Aging does not mean automatic decline. There is nothing inherently fixed in the precise trajectory of how our brain functions evolve as we age.
- We will not have a Magic Pill or General Solution to solve all our cognitive challenges anytime soon. A multi-pronged approach is recommended, centered around nutrition, stress management, and both physical and mental exercise.
Physical Exercise Facts
- Physical exercise improves learning and other brain functions through increased brain volume, blood supply and growth hormone levels in the body.
- Of all the types of physical exercise, cardiovascular exercise that gets the heart beating – from walking to skiing, tennis and basketball – has been shown to have the greatest effect.
- Aerobic exercise for at least thirty to sixty minutes per day, three days a week, seems to be the best regimen.
(For more information on physical exercise and brain health, see The Fountain Of Youth For Brain And Body)
Brain and Nutrition Facts
- The brain needs a lot of energy: It extracts approximately 50% of the oxygen and 10% of the glucose from arterial blood.
- Intake of Omega-3 fatty acids is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline.
- Intake of vegetables (and thus antioxidants) is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
- Tobacco use increases risks of cognitive decline and dementia.
- Moderate doses of caffeine can increase alertness but there is no clear sustained lifetime benefit.
- Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption lowers the risk of dementia.
Mental Challenge Facts
- Mental Stimulation strengthens the connections between neurons (synapses), thus improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning.
- Mental stimulation also helps build cognitive reserve, helping the brain be better protected against potential pathology.
- Reading, writing, playing board or card games, doing crossword and other puzzles, and participating in organized group discussions can be cognitively challenging activities.
- The only leisure activity that has been associated with reduced cognitive function is watching television.
(For more information on challenging your brain, see Mental Gymnastics and 15 Ways To Kick Your Brain Out Of Its Comfort Zone)
Brain and Social\Engagement Facts
- Higher social engagement is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risks of cognitive decline.
- Volunteering helps lower mortality and depression rates and slows down the decline in physical health and cognitive function.
- Larger social network sizes are associated with better cognitive function.
Brain and Stress Facts
- Chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells).
- Memory and general mental flexibility are impaired by chronic stress.
Brain Training Facts
- Medication is not the only hope or even main hope for cognitive enhancement. Non-invasive interventions can have comparable and more durable effects, side-effect free.
- Not all brain activities or exercises are equal. Varied and targeted exercises are the necessary ingredients in brain training so that a wide range of brain functions can be stimulated.
- “Brain age” is a fiction: No two individuals have the same brain or cognitive functioning. Consequently, brain training cannot be said to roll back “brain age” by 10, 20, or 30 years.
- Brain training is more effortful, and its effects are more specific, compared to a challenging leisure activity.
(For more information on brain training, see You’re Not Stuck With The Brain You Were Born With and Building A Better Brain )