Developed nations have created a sedentary, inactive society with a deteriorated vascular system and consequent decline in physical and mental health. Nearly half of young people ages 12 to 21, do not participate in vigorous physical activity on a regular basis. Fewer than one-in-four children report getting at least half an hour of any type of daily physical activity and do not attend any school physical education classes. In June 2001, ABC News reported that school children spend 4.8 hours per day on the computer, watching TV, or playing video games. Adults are in the same boat. So perk up your brain with these approaches.
Challenge your brain
When we are young, the world seems filled with curious surprises, wonderful discoveries, and overwhelming challenges. Our brains are taking in limitless bits of information and we are developing lifetime skills. This burst of learning is like the brain Olympics of our human journey. Yet unlike the Olympic athletes who have a limited time to demonstrate their peak performance, the human brain can continue to grow and improve with exercise.
It is important to challenge your brain to learn new and unique tasks, especially processes that you’ve never done before. Examples include dancing, chess, kung fu, yoga, or even playing a musical instrument. Working with modeling clay or play dough is an especially good way for children to grow new connections. It helps develop agility and hand-brain coordination.
Traveling is another good way to stimulate your brain. It worked for our ancestors, the early Homo sapiens. Their nomadic lifestyle provided a tremendous stimulation for their brains that led to the development of superior tools and survival skills. In comparison, the now-extinct Neanderthal was a species that for thousands of years apparently did not venture too far from their homes. (Maybe they were simply content with their lives – in contrast to the seldom-satisfied Homo sapiens.)
Early humans gained a crucial evolutionary edge from the flexibility and innovation required by their strategic lifestyle, which also led to a more diverse diet that allowed their brains to rapidly evolve.
Flex your brain
Regard your brain as a muscle, and find opportunities to exercise it. “Read, read, read,” says Dr. Amir Soas of Case Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland. Do puzzles, play Scrabble, start a new hobby or learn to speak a foreign language. “Anything that stimulates the brain to think.” Also, watch less television, because “your brain goes into neutral,” he said.
Challenging the brain early in life is crucial to building up more “cognitive reserve” to counter brain-damaging disease, according to Dr. David Bennett of Chicago’s Rush University. And, reading-habits prior to age 18 are a key predictor of later cognitive function.
A cognitive psychologist in England found that when elderly people regularly played bingo, it helped minimize their memory loss and strengthened their hand-eye coordination. Bingo seemed to help players of all ages remain mentally sharp.
Grow your brain
Research on the physical results of thinking has shown that just using the brain actually increases the number of dendritic branches that interconnect brain cells. The more we think, the better our brains function – regardless of age. The renowned brain researcher Dr. Marian Diamond says, “The nervous system possesses not just a ‘morning’ of plasticity, but an ‘afternoon’ and an ‘evening’ as well.”
Dr. Diamond found that whether we are young or old, we can continue to learn. The brain can change at any age. A dendrite grows much like a tree, from trunk to branches to twigs, in an array of ever finer complexity.
In fact, older brains may have an advantage. She discovered that more highly developed neurons respond even better to intellectual enrichment than less developed ones do. The greatest increase in dendritic length occurred in the outermost dendritic branches, as a reaction to new information.
As she poetically describes it: “We began with a nerve cell, which starts in the embryo as just a sort of sphere. It sends its first branch out to overcome ignorance. As it reaches out, it is gathering knowledge and it is becoming creative. Then we become a little more idealistic, generous, and altruistic; but it is our six-sided dendrites which give us wisdom.”
Contrary to popular myth, we do not lose mass quantities of brains cells as you get older. “There isn’t much difference between a 25-year old brain and a 75-year old brain,” says Dr. Monte S. Buchsbaum, who has scanned a lot of brains as director of the Neuroscience PET Laboratory at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Cognitive decline is not inevitable. When 6,000 older people were given mental tests throughout a ten-year period, almost 70% continued to maintain their brain power as they aged. Certain areas of the brain, however, are more prone to damage and deterioration over time. One is the hippocampus , which transfers new memories to long-term storage elsewhere in the brain. Another vulnerable area is the basal ganglia, which coordinates commands to move muscles. Research indicates that mental exercise can improve these areas and positively affect memory and physical coordination.
Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation discovered that a muscle can be strengthened just by thinking about exercising it.
For 12 weeks (five minutes a day, five days per week) a team of 30 healthy young adults imagined either using the muscle of their little finger or of their elbow flexor. Dr. Vinoth Ranganathan and his team asked the participants to think as strongly as they could about moving the muscle being tested, to make the imaginary movement as real as they could.
Compared to a control group – that did no imaginary exercises and showed no strength gains – the little-finger group increased their pinky muscle strength by 35%. The other group increased elbow strength by 13.4%.
Surround yourself in a stimulating environment
Animal studies show that intellectual enrichment can even compensate for some forms of physical brain damage. For example, a mentally stimulating environment helped protect rats from the potentially damaging effects of lead poisoning.
Neuroscientists at Jefferson Medical College compared groups of rats given lead-laced water for several weeks in two different environments. Rats living in a stimulating environment showed a better ability to learn compared to the animals that were isolated. “Behaviorally, being in an enriched environment seemed to help protect their brains,” says Jay Schneider, Ph.D., professor of pathology, neurology, anatomy and cell biology.
“The magnitude of the protective effect surprised me,” he says. “This might lead to an early educational intervention for at-risk populations.” It suggests a way to diminish the damage that lead does to kids: by manipulating their socio-behavioral environment.
Keep a healthy brain with physical exercise
We all know that physical exercise is good for our general health, but did you know that physical exercise is also good for your brain? If you think you’re going to get smarter sitting in front of your computer or watching television, think again.
Exercise is beneficial for your brain, because it increases blood circulation and the oxygen and glucose that reach your brain. Walking can be especially advantageous as it is not strenuous, so your leg muscles don’t take up extra oxygen and glucose like they do during other forms of exercise. As you walk, you effectively oxygenate your brain. Maybe this is why walking can “clear your head” and helps you to think better.
Ongoing animal studies at The Salk Institute show that running can boost brain cell survival in mice that have a neurodegenerative disease with properties similar to Alzheimer’s.
When these mice are sedentary, “it appears that most newly born brain cells die. We don’t understand that fully, but it probably has something to do with an inability to cope with oxidative stress,” said Carrolee Barlow, a Salk assistant professor and lead author of the study. “Running appears to ‘rescue’ many of these cells that would otherwise die.”
Furthermore, the miles logged correlated directly with the numbers of increased cells, she said. “It’s almost as if they were wearing pedometers, and those that ran more grew more cells.”
Protecting your brain as it ages
Physical exercise has a protective effect on the brain and its mental processes, and may even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Based on exercise and health data from nearly 5,000 men and women over 65 years of age, those who exercised were less likely to lose their mental abilities or develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Furthermore, the five-year study at the Laval University in Sainte-Foy, Quebec suggests that the more a person exercises the greater the protective benefits for the brain, particularly in women. Inactive individuals were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s, compared to those with the highest levels of activity (exercised vigorously at least three times a week). But even light or moderate exercisers cut their risk significantly for Alzheimer’s and mental decline.