We define Brain Fitness as having the brain-based cognitive, emotional and self-regulation capacities required to succeed in one’s environment. Not everyone is exposed to the same mental demands nor do we all have the same starting points. This means we need to stop looking for ‘magic pills’ and invest more resources in developing toolkits and infrastructure similar to what the physical fitness industry has done over the last 30–40 years.
The following question guides much of our work at SharpBrains: “What tools provide the right kind of experience to refine our brains from a structural and functional point of view to harness neuroplasticity into real-world benefits?” We try to provide good information and answers by constantly monitoring and analyzing the state of science and the marketplace—and by sharing these analyses via appropriate platforms with organizations and individuals. SharpBrains doesn’t sell, develop or endorse products in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
The main context for brain fitness is this: The human brain is now considered to be a highly dynamic and constantly reorganizing system capable of being shaped—and reshaped—across an entire lifespan. Growing evidence supports the value of a range of lifestyle factors and non-invasive interventions in maintaining and enhancing cognitive functions at each life stage—leveraging lifelong brain plasticity. In our consumer-facing book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (May 2009), we emphasize the following four ‘pillars’ of brain fitness: aerobic physical exercise, mental exercise, balanced nutrition and stress management.
From these, the two gathering the most research evidence are (1.) aerobic physical exercise and (2.) mental exercise – particularly structured cognitive exercise such as meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive training. It’s important to recognize that the respective mechanisms and benefits seem to be differentiated and complementary. Aerobic exercise appears to bring a wide variety of brain-based (neurogenesis, nerve growth and angiogenesis) cognitive benefits. Mental exercise may result in additional brain-based (neuron survival, neuron migration) cognitive benefits—delaying the onset of cognitive decline, lowering probability of Alzheimer’s Disease symptoms and targeting cognitive improvements without a ceiling on enhanced results.
At present, a multi-pronged approach appears most likely to result in overall brain health, while technology-based assessments, therapies and training tools can guide and deliver more targeted benefits and become a core component of the overall brain health mix—given efficiency and scalability. It is important to note that the Systematic Evidence Review* published in April 2010 by an independent, NIH-appointed expert panel, to summarize the state of science for prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease and cognitive decline, found that the only protective factor (meaning, decreases risk) against cognitive decline that is supported by the highest quality of evidence is cognitive training (a type of “brain training”). Other factors such as physical activity, a Mediterranean diet and cognitive engagement in general also seemed protective when evidence of lower scientific quality was included in the mix.
*Reference: Williams JW, Plassman BL, Burke J, Holsinger T, Benjamin S. Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and Cognitive Decline. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 193. (Prepared by the Duke Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. HHSA 290‑2007-10066‑I.) AHRQ Publication No. 10-E005. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. April 2010. Available online at: (http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/tp/alzcogtp.htm).