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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

- Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series

- Author Speaks Series

- Books

- Arti­cles and Papers

- Direc­to­ry of Web Sites

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6 Responses

  1. Roland says:

    You are “right on” with your anol­o­gy of car care and brain fit­ness. Many mid­dle age men and women don’t find time to take care of their mind and bod­ies, but always find the time to care for their cars. Tak­ing care of your brain and body today will allow you many healthy years in retire­ment.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Roland, thank you for your com­ment. We see more and more adults inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about their brain for their own benefit…so hope­ful­ly in some years “brain main­te­nance” will be an obvi­ous expres­sions and prac­tice.

  3. Jared says:

    Where can i signup to get paid to par­tic­i­pate in these kind of stud­ies

    jreedhome@yahoo.com

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Jared, we are not aware of a ser­vice where you sign-up and receive an aggre­gat­ed and updat­ed list of clin­i­cal tri­als. We are going to open an a sec­tion in our site list­ing a num­ber of them, so I rec­om­mend sub­scrib­ing to our newslet­ter to be on top of that.

  5. Jose says:

    I believe that the brain is an essen­tial part of our bod­ies as it rep­re­sents the com­put­er of mod­ern cars with the only dif­fer­ence that a car’s com­put­er can be exchange, but ours can not. That is why it is very impor­tant to take care our com­put­er “mind-body” before think­ing of an oil change. But unfor­tu­nate­ly, this is not a neces­si­ty in this mod­ern soci­ety for since we become more and more spoiled and depen­dent on tech­nol­o­gy. But what is going to hap­pen when our com­put­er does not boot?

  6. Alvaro says:

    Jose: great com­ment. Per­haps we should appre­ci­ate the gift of hav­ing a “com­put­er” in our brains that re-boots itself auto­mat­i­cal­ly every morning…sometimes runs faster on a cof­fee processor…and indeed ben­e­fits from our care.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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