How fit are your neurons?
“Brain fitness”caught on years ago as a way to stave off one of the more troubling effects of aging: cognitive impairment, or dementia. Pencils in hand, adults have been working the daily crossword in an attempt to lower their risk of Alzheimer’s and sharpen their minds since the 1980s. In recent years, studies have begun to give evidence that mental function really can be improved – much the same way that physical health can be improved with exercise – by consciously training your brain’s neurons.
Why does the brain need training?
Scientifically, when mental stimulation takes place, so does neurogenesis; that is, new neurons are created in the brain and they begin to connect with neighboring neurons, firing together in a sort-of combustion of growth. This, in turn, prevents cell death – you might say it keeps the brain’s power switches “turned on.”
There are a lot of reasons the brain slows down as we age, and some decline is normal. The human life-cycle allows for lots of mental stimulation all through childhood and formal education, through career training, and then continuing education and hobbies, but oftentimes those activities lessen as we get older. Unfortunately, other events like illness, depression, reactions to certain medications (like chemotherapy), too much alcohol, head injuries and even poor diet and not enough exercise can exacerbate memory problems and function.
Four ways to work the mind’s “muscles”
- Be active – physically active. The National Institute on Aging recommends that all adults boost their overall health and well-being with regular exercise. It’s unknown whether this directly prevents or delays mental decline, but it can greatly lower the risks for other chronic diseases.
- Eat right. The food you eat delivers nutrients to your whole body, including your brain, and can have a direct effect on your mood, energy level and physical health. Don’t ignore this important component of mental health.
- Do something interesting. Take a class, learn to play an instrument, read and stay socially, intellectually engaged with friends and family.
- Play brain games. You can find them everywhere these days – online, in books, in the app store for your smartphone and on your kids’ video game devices. Some experts recommend 20-30 minutes a day for optimal training.
One thing to keep in mind: Doing the same types of brainteasers repeatedly – like daily crosswords – only reinforces the brain’s already established pathways. It isn’t quite as helpful as trying a variety of mental challenges and tasks. So, branch out to really pump up that frontal lobe.
Check out these resources
Lumosity.com –Offers both free and paid plans, and you can customize your “workouts” to whatyou want to achieve – better memory, improvement in learning names/faces,thinking creatively, even doing faster mental calculations. A mobile version isalso available for free in the iTunes App Store.
BrainAge – This highly rated video game series for the Nintendo DS is based on the work of a Japanese neuroscientist and incorporates simple math problem solving, classical literature, Sudoku and more. You use the touch screen and stylus for a very interactive experience.
PositScience.com and Brain HQ – Paid and free subscriptions available. Brain HQ’s exercises are designed to improve Attention, Memory, Brain Speed, Intelligence, People Skills, and Navigation, and have been used in clinical trials.
Clockwork Brain –The London Times chose this as one of the 500 Best Apps in the world. Fun games for spatial, visual, logic, language,math and memory – and word games are available in 9 different languages.
Workbooks – Do a quick search for “brain games” on Amazon.com and you’ll reveal more than 8,000 workbooks with brain teasers and tests that work just like the online versions, if you prefer paper and pencil (and it’s okay if you do)!
This article was previously published in our Amoena Life magazine, the latest copy of which can be read online here. To make sure you hear about our new releases soon as they're available, sign up for our e-newsletter.