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It is Not Only Cars That Deserve Good Maintenance: Brain Care 101

Car mechanicLast week, 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.

brainStim­u­lat­ing 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?”

Related blog posts and resources

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