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Yes, It is Smart to Learn New Tricks

Good arti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post today: 

Is It Really Smart to Teach Old Brains New Tricks?

The reporter presents a good overview of what is happening, but framed around a highly arti­fi­cial choice for con­sumers: either you a) do phys­i­cal exer­cise, or b) take part in social inter­ac­tions, or c) engage in men­tal exercise.

What about switch­ing off those TVs and hav­ing time for all a, b, c, and more? Research does not sup­port a “gen­eral solu­tion” to cog­ni­tive health but a multi-pronged one, fea­tur­ing a good nutri­tion, stress man­age­ment, and both phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise. Each indi­vid­ual presents dif­fer­ent con­texts and pri­or­i­ties: for exam­ple, while research has shown how doing zero weekly aer­o­bic exer­cise can trans­late into lower cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing, it does not sup­port that, should you already engage in 2 or 3 weekly 30-minute ses­sions of car­dio exer­cise, includ­ing walks, sports, gym…doing more phys­i­cal exer­cise would be the absolute, only, pri­or­ity for cog­ni­tive health.

In 2007, Amer­i­cans paid over $14 bil­lion in health club mem­ber­ship fees alone (IHRSA, 2007). The $225 mil­lion we esti­mate for brain fit­ness soft­ware rep­re­sents the birth of a small but promis­ing field. The ben­e­fits of well-directed men­tal exer­cise (in the form of soft­ware, or med­i­ta­tion, of cog­ni­tive ther­apy) are becom­ing increas­ingly well-documented, but they have to be bet­ter under­stood: noth­ing can be said to help pre­vent Alzheimer’s Dis­ease, but a grow­ing num­ber of tools will be able to help main­tain impor­tant cog­ni­tive func­tions, from speed of pro­cess­ing to work­ing mem­ory and beyond. 

Con­sumers will need help to nav­i­gate this grow­ing field and make informed deci­sions. They will need to under­stand how our brains work, what cog­ni­tive skills are and why they mat­ter, how dif­fer­ent lifestyle fac­tors play a role in our life­long cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, and how to ana­lyze the value and the lim­i­ta­tions of a grow­ing array of options.

 

I had the for­tune to inter­view neu­ro­sci­en­tist Yaakov Stern –one of the lead­ing Cog­ni­tive Reserve researchers– last year to try to trans­late recent research find­ings into prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions. One of my ques­tions was, “OK, so our goal is to build that Reserve of neu­rons, synapses, and skills. How can we do that? What defines “men­tally stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties” or good “brain exercise”?”

Dr. Yaakov Stern: “In sum­mary, we could say that “stim­u­la­tion” con­sists of engag­ing in activ­i­ties. In our research almost all activ­i­ties are seen to con­tribute to reserve. Some have chal­leng­ing lev­els of cog­ni­tive com­plex­ity, and some have inter­per­sonal or phys­i­cal demands. In ani­mal stud­ies, expo­sure to an enriched envi­ron­ment or increased phys­i­cal activ­ity result in increased neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis (the cre­ation of new neu­rons). You can get that stim­u­la­tion through edu­ca­tion and/ or your occu­pa­tion. There is clear research show­ing how those two ele­ments reduce the risk. Now, what is very excit­ing is that, no mat­ter one’s age, edu­ca­tion and occu­pa­tion, our level of par­tic­i­pa­tion in leisure activ­i­ties has a sig­nif­i­cant and cumu­la­tive effect. A key mes­sage here is that dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties have inde­pen­dent, syn­er­gis­tic, con­tri­bu­tions, which means the more things you do and the ear­lier you start, the bet­ter. But you are never stuck: bet­ter late than never.”

The more, the bet­ter. Switch off that TV, make time for friends, and phys­i­cal and men­tal exercise.

Many baby boomers, intu­itively per­haps, seem to be doing pre­cisely that.

Related in-depth inter­views with researchers:

- Build Your Cog­ni­tive Reserve-Yaakov Stern

- Art Kramer on Why We Need Walk­ing Book Clubs

- Can Intel­li­gence Be Trained? Mar­tin Buschkuehl shows how

- Improv­ing Dri­ving Skills and Brain Func­tion­ing– Inter­view with ACTIVE’s Jerri Edwards

 

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