I can’t speak to why other people channel surf, but for me, mindlessly flipping through TV offerings is an easy vacation for my brain. I know I should be digging into that neglected historical novel instead, but just watching the product of someone else’s creative thinking feels like a deliciously overstuffed La-Z-Boy for my mind. But by not challenging my own intellect today, am I putting myself at risk for cognitive decline down the road?
These days, if you ask a neuroscientist this question you’d get an answer somewhere in the neighborhood of “quite possibly.” This is because there is consensus now among such experts that maintaining brain fitness – which includes not only memory, but also reasoning and speed of processing – is in part dependent on maintaining a regimen of physical exercise, mental exercise and good health habits in general. In other words, working out, with both your mind and body, is not only shown to delay cognitive decline, but actually improve function and possibly reduce the risk of memory-robbing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
So what is the link between exercise and a more resilient brain? For starters, physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which may encourage the formation of new synapses (the brain’s message carriers) in areas of the brain responsible for memory and executive functioning. Most effective in studies is aerobic-type exercise, where older adults who walked regularly showed the least cognitive decline, with some showing improvement in their working memory, attention and processing skills.
“Moving the body truly fuels the brain,” says Nancy Isenberg, MD, MPH, Virginia Mason Neuroscience Institute. “At least two areas of the brain, vital for memory and learning, can generate new cells. By exercising, which also helps control blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, the brain becomes more flexible and able to delay the onset of disease or slow its progression if it occurs.”
Working on your diet
Of course the other way to control the potentially brain-harming forces of high cholesterol and abnormal blood sugar is diet. A published university study showed that eating a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style diet – comprised of more fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats – lowered the risk of mild cognitive impairment over several years by as much as 28 percent.
Working your mind
A more resilient brain can also mean one with more cognitive reserves, or greater connectivity between its different regions. This is where the mental exercise comes in, since the brain is truly a use-it-or-lose-it type of organ. While software companies have rushed to put various digital brain-boosting programs on the market, playing the same type of game over and over may only serve to increase proficiency for that game.
What the brain really needs is a range of activities to keep those synapses firing – working puzzles, learning a musical instrument, doing crosswords, quilting, learning to dance, engaging in robust conversation – anything that represents a new and interesting task. And the good news is it’s never too late to start these mental work-outs. Research indicates that brain reserves can be expanded throughout life, even into old age.
“It’s incredibly important to help our patients to understand how their daily behavior affects their lifelong cognitive abilities,” says Dr. Isenberg. “Even if we develop disease-modifying treatments, I strongly believe that targeting modifiable vascular and metabolic risk through exercise and diet will continue to play a crucial role in healthy aging.”
So before you reach for that remote, consider taking a walk, turning on the music and dancing or picking up some good reading material instead. By showing our brains a good time, maybe they’ll do the same for us.