Brain Exercise Provides Benefits at Any Age

Brain Exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Engaging in cognitively stimulating activities both early and late in life is associated with slower cognitive decline later in life, new research revealed
  • The research supports the cognitive reserve hypothesis, which suggests that people with greater cognitive abilities have better cognitive function in later life, and may even be able to delay some symptoms of dementia despite physical changes in the brain
  • Research into brain plasticity has proven that your brain continues to make new neurons throughout life in response to mental activity
  • Online brain games, practicing mindfulness, and even reading and writing are examples of ways to challenge your mind for better cognitive function

By Dr. Mercola

There’s good news for bookworms… or really anyone who enjoys reading, writing and other ‘intellectual pursuits,’ especially if you’ve been doing such activities since you were a kid.

Researchers revealed that engaging in cognitively stimulating activities both early and late in life is associated with slower late-life cognitive decline.1

Stimulating Your Brain Throughout Life Provides Protection Later On

The research suggests that the sooner you start challenging your mind, the better, as those with more frequent cognitive activity over their lifespan fared the best, cognitively, in their later years. Researchers wrote:

“More frequent cognitive activity across the life span has an association with slower late-life cognitive decline that is independent of common neuropathologic conditions, consistent with the cognitive reserve hypothesis.”

The cognitive reserve hypothesis suggests that people with greater cognitive abilities (education, knowledge, etc.) have better cognitive function later in life, and may even be able to delay some symptoms of dementia despite physical changes in the brain that would typically be related to such symptoms in others.

The latest study supports this hypothesis, as have many before it. One such study showed, for example, that mice with the rodent equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease given high levels of cognitive activity throughout their lives were protected against memory impairment.2 The researchers noted:

“ … our data suggest that humans who emphasize a high lifelong level of cognitive activity (over and above social and physical activities) will attain the maximal environmental protection against AD [Alzheimer’s disease].”

Your Brain: Use It or Lose It

Research into brain plasticity has proven that your brain continues to make new neurons throughout life in response to mental activity, which means that cognitive function can be improved, regardless of your age, and cognitive decline can be reversed.

However, if you don't sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate. In my interview with Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, who has pioneered research in brain plasticity (also called neuroplasticity) for more than 30 years, he explained:

"Generally, by the third or fourth decade in life, you're in decline. One of the things that happens across this period is that you go from a period of the acquisition of abilities to largely using those abilities that have been acquired earlier in life. By that I mean to say, the fundamental skills that you apply in your profession or in your everyday life are things you master, and you're doing them without thought.

To a large extent, you're operating most of your day without really being consciously engaged in the things you're doing... I've gone without really thinking very much about the physical acts of driving. I'm substantially disengaged.

This has been contributed to substantially by modern culture. Modern culture is all about taking out surprises... to basically reduce the stimulation in a sense on one level, so that we could engage ourselves in sort of an abstract level of operations. We're no longer interested in the details of things. We're no longer interested in resolving the details of what we see or hear or feel, and our brains slowly deteriorate."

What research into brain plasticity shows us, however, is that by providing your brain with appropriate stimulus, you can counteract this degeneration. A key factor or ingredient necessary for improving brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task. In other words, the task must be important to you, or somehow meaningful or interesting — it must hold your attention. Rote memorization of nonsensical or unimportant items will not stimulate your brain to create new neurons, for instance, but learning how to play a musical instrument that you’ve always dreamed of playing will.

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Even Drinking Water May Boost Your Cognitive Performance

Your brain function is extremely vulnerable to your lifestyle choices (just try to complete a mentally challenging task after a lousy night’s sleep…). What you eat, for example, has an immense impact on your brain, and eating whole foods as described in my nutrition plan will best support your mental and physical health. But what you drink is also important, especially if you don’t drink enough.

Mild dehydration has been linked to declines in brain function, and new research showed that people who were allowed to drink water before a reaction time test responded up to 14 percent faster than those who were not.3 People who said they felt thirsty were particularly likely to react faster after drinking water, so if you’re thirsty and you need a quick mental boost, try drinking a glass of water.

‘Brain Games’ to Boost Your Brain Function

If you’re wondering what you can do to effectively challenge your brain, it doesn’t have to be as extensive as learning a new language or other skill. Simply reading and writing were found to be beneficial in the first study mentioned above, for instance, as has playing word games like crossword puzzles.

Another option that is becoming increasingly popular today is ‘brain games’ which you can play online via Web sites like Dr. Merzenich has also developed a computer-based brain-training program that can help you sharpen a range of skills, from reading and comprehension to improved memorization and more. The program is called Brain HQ, and the website has many different exercises designed to improve brain function and it also allows you to track and monitor your progress over time. While there are many similar sites on the Web, Brain HQ is one of the oldest and most widely used.

If you decide to try brain games, ideally it would be wise to invest at least 20 minutes a day, but no more than five to seven minutes is to be spent on a specific task. When you spend longer amounts of time on a task, the benefits weaken. According to Dr. Merzenich, the primary benefits occur in the first five or six minutes of the task.

5 More Tips to Strengthen Your Cognitive Function

There are multiple strategies you can use on a daily basis, as part of your day-to-day lifestyle, to help maintain optimal brain fitness:

  1. Get 15-30 minutes of physical exercise each day, and while exercising, think about using your brain to control your actions. Exercising while listening to music has also been shown to prompt beneficial brain changes.
  2. Spend about five minutes every day working on the refinement of a specific, small domain of your physical body. Dr. Merzenich explains:
  3. "That is to say, move in a very variable and controlled way – variable in speed, variable to reach a target, for example, with your big toe or your little finger. Do that every day. I do that in a systematic way, because I'm trying to maintain the fidelity of the neurological control movement. I know that I'm very much thinking about the feeling in my movements as I do that."

  4. Find ways to engage yourself in new learning as a continuous aspect of your life, such as taking on new hobbies and purposefully learning new skills.
  5. Stay socially engaged.
  6. Practice "mindfulness," in which you're attentively focusing on the world around you again, as if you're seeing it for the first time.