There are two images from the 2017 global Women’s Marches that stay with me. One, from Athens, focuses on two…
Increasingly people are realising that their brain is their most important asset. After all, our brain not only directs our organs and helps us walk, talk, and solve problems, it also enables us to joke, play, grow, and love. With the average lifespan now over 80 for women in many countries, there’s greater interest in maintaining our brain for life. The likelihood of suffering from dementia increases with age and by age 80 the odds of developing clinical dementia are estimated to be between one to two people out of every three. Alzheimer’s Disease International reports that by 2050 the number of people living with dementia worldwide will triple current numbers to a staggering 131 million adults. While we can’t stop ourselves from getting older, we can do quite a few things to reduce those odds, and one risk-reducing factor is maintaining ‘brain fitness’.
Brain fitness is a commercial term and from a neuroscience perspective is not terribly informative. As a neuroscientist specialising in cognitive training and brain health, let me introduce the scientific terms: brain reserve and cognitive reserve. The term ‘brain’ refers to the tangible 1.3 kg organ and ‘cognition’ includes all of the complex processes and operations that our brain performs such as learning, problem solving, sensory function, and language. ‘Reserve’ applies to both terms and refers to all of the accrued protective benefit of structural brain and functional cognitive resilience. Basically, the more you have used your brain over your lifetime the more robust it is both structurally and functionally. Educational achievement, mentally-stimulating activities, social engagement, and physical exercise have all been shown to significantly build greater reserve. Reserve actually starts very early in life, during those first few critical years, and is steadily built upon during childhood and consolidated in midlife to provide a future buffer against trauma and clinical dementia. Importantly though, research also demonstrates that we can build brain and cognitive reserve at any age, meaning that it is never too early or too late to start.
When researchers examine groups of people in the community they consistently discover that those engaged in mentally-stimulating activities have greater brain reserve and lower risks of clinical dementia. There’s a large body of new research showing that individuals with a lot of education, highly challenging jobs, and who are very socially engaged have the highest levels of mental function and the lowest levels of decline later in life. And one discovery that I think is incredible is that what you do this year will actually influence how well your brain and cognition will function the following year.
Our brain has evolved to learn and adapt to new experiences to such an extent that you could think of novelty as ‘brain food’. New experiences stimulate the brain and increase reserve. When we learn new things we recruit many different brain regions, which creates a memory or permanent record of the new information or skill, such as driving a car, speaking French, playing a musical instrument, or mastering making a soufflé. Learning is so crucial to our ability to function, adapt, and survive that the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with reward, is involved in new learning. Essentially dopamine increases our attentiveness and gives us that sense of enjoyment we have when we encounter something new. Think how pleasurable a new experience is – be it going to a new restaurant, reading a new book, watching a new film, or taking a holiday in a new destination.
Our brains naturally undergo structural and functional changes as we journey through life and go through different experiences. Education and occupation are two significant ways to increase brain and cognitive reserve. For example, a large collaborative European study of over 25,000 adults called SHARE (Survey on Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe) discovered that years of education and level of occupational activity determined late life cognitive performance. Greater years of education and more intellectually-demanding employment have been consistently found to confer the greatest benefits. However, for those who cannot increase their education or change their employment rest assured there are things you can do: intentionally create your own brain-enriched lifestyle.
Introducing stimulating mental activities that are engaging and enjoyable is simple, however the problem is when tasks are too easy or familiar. A recent study compared doing a hobby compared to learning photography, which was considered a complex new activity, and found that the simple hobby had no measurable brain benefit on the outcomes they assessed. To build brain reserve you need to tackle something demanding but also engage in something that you enjoy. Choose activities that make you think, in which you may learn something new, create something new, or problem-solve. To maximise brain demands choose something that involves other people too, as social activities are inherently stimulating. Determine what interests you have and if you are in doubt, go to your local library and browse through the reference sections. What have you always wanted to do, know, or learn about? Mentally-engaging leisure pursuits include learning a language, playing a musical instrument, dancing, or undertaking a technical skill such as carpentry. Consider returning to formal education or training, including online courses, delay your retirement and start another career, or commence volunteer work.
An increasingly popular activity is brain training and this commercial industry is growing exponentially. There are multiple products available claiming to build brainpower and increase cognition, however the claims often exceed the evidence. That said, there is research, including my own, that indicates that some cognitive training programs are effective in improving cognitive function, building cognitive reserve, and increasing brain reserve. In particular, performance on memory, executive attention, and information-processing tasks can improve with brain training. What’s more, there is research that indicates that mental health issues improve and people are able to function better in their daily lives. These benefits have been enjoyed by adults with healthy cognitive function, as well as those with mild cognitive difficulties and dementia.
In order to get the best results, the research suggests that you should complete brain training activities that tax different cognitive functions – like speed, memory, puzzles, problem solving, and language – in a 30-45 minute session, and at a frequency of about three sessions per week. Due to the complexity of the brain and cognitive function we have much yet to discover in this space, but given that no study to date has identified any adverse side effects, it is a very safe and easily accessible way to increase your brain workout.
Finally, to increase brain fitness you also need to boost the health of your brain, which means optimising total health and wellbeing through eating a highly nutritious diet, sleeping seven to nine hours per night, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol, and keeping stress to a minimum. Enjoy investing in your brainpower.