Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Don't be like Homer: You're brain needs a workout too...

The US Car Care Council released a list of tips on how to take care of your car and “save big money at the pump in 2008.”

You may not have paid much attention to this announcement. Yes, it’s important to save gas these days; but, it’s not big news that good maintenance habits will improve the performance of a car, and extend its life.

If we can all agree on the importance of maintaining our cars that get us around town, what about maintaining our brains sitting behind the wheel?

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?

Emerging research since the 90s from the past decade shows that individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives, through their education, their jobs, and also their hobbies, build a “Cognitive Reserve” in their brains. Only a few weeks ago another study reinforced the value of intellectualy demanding jobs.

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. Studies suggest that people who exercise their mental muscles throughout their lives have a 35-40% less risk of manifesting Alzheimer’s.

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.

Further, better brain scanning techniques like fMRI (glossary) are allowing scientists to investigate healthy live brains for the first time in history. Two of the most important findings from this research are that our brains are plastic (meaning they not only create new neurons but also can change their structure) throughout a lifetime and that frontal lobes are the most plastic area. Frontal lobes, the part of our brains right behind the forehead, controls "executive functions" --- which determine our ability to pay attention, plan for the future and direct behavior toward achieving goals. They are critical for adapting to new situations. We exercise them best by learning and mastering new skills.

This part of the brain is delicate: our frontal lobes wait until our mid to late 20s to fully mature. They are also the first part of our brain to start to decline, usually by middle age.

In my view, 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.
Recent studies have shown a tremendous variability in how well people age and how, to a large extent, our actions influence our rate of brain improvement and/or decline. The earlier we begin the better. And it is never too late.

What can we do to maintain our brain, especially the frontal lobes? Focus on four pillars of brain health: physical exercise, a balanced diet, stress management, and 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, lifelong learning and engagement) to high-tech (i.e. using the growing number of brain fitness software programs).

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 by proposing a new New Year Resolution for 2008: every time you wash your car or have it washed in 2008, ask yourself, "What have I done lately to maintain my brain?"

Repost from SharpBrains

1 comment:

Harriet Vines, Ph.D. said...

An ideal resource is "Age Smart - How to Age Well, Stay Fit and Be Happy. The Mental Fitness Workout in each chapter offers effective, stimulating, fun-to-do exercises that enable readers to strengthen their "master muscle," the brain and sharpen their mental acuity.

In addition, "Age Smart" clues readers into the power they have to control the way they age and highlights tips for successful aging.