Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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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  1. GaryD says:

    Alvaro, it makes me *think* about what it was like prior to T.V. , Ipods, cell phones, etc? People actually engaged with each other socially.. or they worked, or studied, or pondered, or debated with each other, or just plain talked and discussed issues and life in social settings.. When I read from authors of the past, or hear a public speaker of old, they spoke differently.. Not just different words, but more profoundly, more intelligently.. Kinda makes you wonder, with all of todays technology, are our brains any healthier? In some ways, are we too dumbed down by too much entertainment, being mentally spoon fed in a dazed state rather than mentally challenged and forced to think? Turning off the T.V. and spending time in social (family or other) engaging activities, or exercising (both physical and mental), or meditating, etc. is an excellent thing to consider doing – for our mental health. Thanks for your post!

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