Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Brain Exercise and Brain Health FAQs

Below you have a quick “email inter­view” we had yes­ter­day with a jour­nal­ist, it may help you nav­i­gate through this emerg­ing field. (if you want some brain exer­cise right now, you can check our Top 50 Brain Teasers).

1. Why is it so impor­tant to exer­cise our brains?

Our brains are com­posed of dif­fer­ent areas and func­tions, and we can strengthen them through men­tal exer­cise– or they get atro­phied for lack of prac­tice. The ben­e­fits are both short-term (improved con­cen­tra­tion and mem­ory, sus­tained men­tal clar­ity under stress­ful sit­u­a­tions…), and long-term (cre­ation of a “brain reserve” that help pro­tect us against poten­tial prob­lems such as Alzheimer’s).

2. What are 1 or 2 things that are guar­an­teed “brain drains”?

- high-levels of anx­i­ety and stress, that are guar­an­teed to dis­tract us from our main goals and waste our lim­ited men­tal energies.

- a very repet­i­tive and routine-driven life, lack­ing in nov­elty and stim­u­la­tion. We have brains to be able to learn and to adapt to new environments

The trick there­fore, is to take on new chal­lenges that are not way too difficult/ impos­si­ble, and learn how to man­age stress to pre­vent anx­i­ety from kicking-in.

3. What are three easy and quick men­tal exer­cises that every­one should be doing daily?

- For stress man­age­ment: a 5-minute visu­al­iza­tion, com­bin­ing deep and reg­u­lar breath­ings with see­ing in our mind’s eye beau­ti­ful land­scapes and/ or remem­ber­ing times in our past when we have been suc­cess­ful at a tough task

- For short-term mem­ory: try a series sub­tract­ing 7 from 200 (200 193 186 179…), or a series involv­ing mul­ti­pli­ca­tion (2,3 4,6 6,9 8,12…) or expo­nen­tial series (2 4 8 16 32 64…) the goal is not to be a math genius, sim­ply to train and improve our short-term mem­ory. Another way is to try and remem­ber our friends tele­phone numbers.

- In gen­eral: try some­thing dif­fer­ent every day, no mat­ter how lit­tle. Take a dif­fer­ent route to work. Talk to a dif­fer­ent col­league. Ask an unex­pected ques­tion. Approach every day as a liv­ing exper­i­ment, a learn­ing oppor­tu­nity.

4. Are cross­word puz­zles and sudoku really as great for exer­cis­ing our brain as they are reported to be? Why? And what about activ­i­ties like knitting?

Use it or lose it” may be mis­lead­ing if we think that “It” is just one thing. The brain is com­posed of many dif­fer­ent areas that focus on dif­fer­ent things. Doing a cross­word puz­zle only acti­vates a small part of the brain. The 3 key prin­ci­ples for good brain exer­cises are: nov­elty, vari­ety and con­stant chal­lenge. Not that dif­fer­ent from cross-training our bodies.

The first time we do a cross­word, or sudoku or knit­ting, that is great, because it forces us to learn. But when doing it is com­pletely rou­tine, the mar­ginal ben­e­fit is very lim­ited. Nowa­days neu­ropsy­chol­o­gists do not rec­om­mend paper-based activ­i­ties but computer-based brain exer­cise soft­ware pro­grams, since they can pro­vide a vari­ety of new activ­i­ties all the time, always tai­lored with a proper increas­ing level of challenge.

5. Any foods that increase our brain fitness?

The main prin­ci­ple is that foods that are good for our body are also good for our brain. omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish such as mack­erel, her­ring, salmon, and tuna, also have shown some ben­e­fits. There is con­tra­dic­tory data on Ginkgo biloba. The best “brain food” is, lit­er­ally, men­tal stimulation.

6. Does phys­i­cal exer­cise also exer­cise our brains?

In sum­mary, phys­i­cal exer­cise is impor­tant because it influ­ences the rate of cre­ation of new neu­rons in our brains. Men­tal exer­cise is impor­tant because it helps deter­mine how those new neu­rons are used-and how long they sur­vive. Stress can reduce both the cre­ation of new neu­rons and their life­time, so stress man­age­ment is impor­tant too.

7. Maria writes in her com­ment below “I read with great inter­est this post on brain-stimulating activ­i­ties. I was sur­prised that soft­ware with a chang­ing chal­lenge level was con­sid­ered the best stim­u­la­tion, since it’s a seden­tary activ­ity. Isn’t active learn­ing, that com­bines phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise, the best way to stim­u­late the brain? Thanks, and love your site!”

Answer: Great com­ment. We are talk­ing about 2 dif­fer­ent things here:

- Habits for long-term good brain health: we usu­ally men­tion the 4 pil­lars of nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise, stress man­age­ment and men­tal stim­u­la­tion. Yes, con­stant active learn­ing pro­vides great men­tal stim­u­la­tion.
– Short-term Train­ing and improve­ment of one spe­cific area (mem­ory,…): you need some­thing more direct and well-targeted train­ing expe­ri­ence such as that pro­vided by a computer-based pro­gram, that assesses where you are today and “stretches” that spe­cific capacity.

Both aspects are very impor­tant, in the same way that both walk­ing often and going to the gym to do tar­geted work­outs are com­ple­men­tary for phys­i­cal fitness.

Hope that helps-let us know any other question!

———-

Note: How can any­one take care of his or her brain when every week brings a new bar­rage of arti­cles and stud­ies which seem to con­tra­dict each other?

Do sup­ple­ments improve mem­ory? Do you need both phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise –or is one of them enough? Why is man­ag­ing stress so impor­tant to atten­tion and mem­ory? Which brain train­ing approach, if any, is worth one’s time and money?

If you have these ques­tions, check out this new book, The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness:

“Finally, an insight­ful and com­plete overview of the sci­ence, prod­ucts and trends to debunk old myths and help us all main­tain our brains in top shape. A must-read”
Glo­ria Cavanaugh, for­mer Pres­i­dent & CEO of the Amer­i­can Soci­ety on Aging and found­ing Board mem­ber of the National Alliance for Caregiving
“Kudos for an excel­lent resource! This Sharp­Brains Guide is full of top notch infor­ma­tion, pro­vides prac­ti­cal tips and helps sep­a­rate hype from hope in the brain health arena.“
Eliz­a­beth Edgerly, Ph.D., Chief Pro­gram Offi­cer, Alzheimer’s Association
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