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20 Must-Know Facts to Harness Neuroplasticity and Improve Brain Health

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June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Aware­ness Month, so let me share these 20 Must-Know Facts to Har­ness Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty & Improve Brain Health that come from the hun­dreds of sci­en­tif­ic and med­ical stud­ies we ana­lyzed to pre­pare the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Improve Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age:

  1. There is more than one “It” in “Use It or Lose It” — our per­for­mance depends on a vari­ety of brain func­tions and cog­ni­tive skills, not just one (be it “atten­tion” or “mem­o­ry” or any oth­er).
  2. Genes do not deter­mine the fate of our brains. Thanks to life­long neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, our lifestyles are as impor­tant as our genes–if not more– in how our brains grow and our minds evolve.
  3. We need to pay more atten­tion to Ran­dom­ized Con­trolled Tri­als (RCTs) to ver­i­fy whether any inter­ven­tion caus­es an effect, and under what spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances — The media is doing quite a poor job, in our view, to edu­cate the gen­er­al pub­lic.
  4. The largest recent RCT (the ongo­ing FINGER study) and a 2010 sys­tem­at­ic review of all rel­e­vant RCTs pro­vide use­ful guid­ance: First, they report a pro­tec­tive effect of social and cog­ni­tive engage­ment, phys­i­cal exer­cise, and the Mediter­ranean diet. Sec­ond, the aver­age ben­e­fits at the pop­u­la­tion lev­el appear quite lim­it­ed, so we need to have real­is­tic expec­ta­tions.
  5. Phys­i­cal exer­cise and increased fit­ness pro­mote brain func­tion­ing through a vari­ety of mech­a­nisms, includ­ing increased brain vol­ume, blood sup­ply and growth hor­mone lev­els.
  6. Car­dio­vas­cu­lar exer­cise that gets the heart beat­ing – from walk­ing to ski­ing, ten­nis and bas­ket­ball – seems to bring the great­est brain ben­e­fits; thir­ty to six­ty min­utes per day, three days a week, seems to be the best reg­i­men.
  7. Men­tal stim­u­la­tion strength­ens the con­nec­tions between neu­rons (synaps­es), improv­ing neu­ron sur­vival and cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. Men­tal stim­u­la­tion also helps build cog­ni­tive reserve, help­ing the brain bet­ter cope with poten­tial AD pathol­o­gy.
  8. Rou­tine activ­i­ties do not chal­lenge the brain. Keep­ing up the chal­lenge requires going to the next lev­el of dif­fi­cul­ty, or try­ing some­thing new.
  9. The only leisure activ­i­ty that has been asso­ci­at­ed with reduced cog­ni­tive func­tion is watch­ing tele­vi­sion.
  10. Brain train­ing can work, putting the “cells that fire togeth­er wire togeth­er” to good use, but avail­able RCTs sug­gest some key con­di­tions must be met to trans­fer to real-life ben­e­fits.
  11. The brain needs a lot of ener­gy: It extracts approx­i­mate­ly 50% of the oxy­gen and 10% of the glu­cose from arte­r­i­al blood.
  12. The Mediter­ranean Diet, sup­ple­ment­ed with olive oil and nuts, is asso­ci­at­ed with decreased risk of cog­ni­tive decline.
  13. Mod­er­ate dos­es of caf­feine increase alert­ness but there is no clear sus­tained life­time health ben­e­fit (or harm).
  14. Light-to-mod­er­ate alco­hol con­sump­tion seems to low­er the risk of demen­tia.
  15. Tak­ing “brain sup­ple­ments” of any kind does not seem to boost cog­ni­tive func­tion or reduce risks of cog­ni­tive decline or demen­tia, unless direct­ed to address an iden­ti­fied defi­cien­cy.
  16. The larg­er and the more com­plex a person’s social net­work is, the big­ger the amyg­dala (which plays a major role in our behav­ior and moti­va­tion). There is no clear evi­dence to date on whether “online” rela­tion­ships are fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from “offline” ones in this regard.
  17. Chron­ic stress reduces and can even inhib­it neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. Mem­o­ry and gen­er­al men­tal flex­i­bil­i­ty are impaired by chron­ic stress.
  18. There is increas­ing evi­dence that med­i­ta­tion and biofeed­back can suc­cess­ful­ly teach users to self-reg­u­late phys­i­o­log­i­cal stress respons­es.
  19. We will not have a Mag­ic Pill or Gen­er­al Solu­tion to solve all our cog­ni­tive chal­lenges any time soon, so a holis­tic mul­ti-pronged approach is rec­om­mend­ed, cen­tered around nutri­tion, stress man­age­ment, and both phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise.
  20. Hav­ing said that, no size fits all, so it’s crit­i­cal to under­stand and address indi­vid­ual needs, pri­or­i­ties and start­ing points.

Now, remem­ber that what counts in terms of brain health is not read­ing this arti­cle, or any oth­er, but prac­tic­ing some healthy behav­iors every day until small steps become inter­nal­ized habits. Revis­it the fact above that real­ly grabbed your attention…and make a deci­sion to try some­thing new this sum­mer 🙂

(Final­ly, if you enjoy books, may I sug­gest some great sum­mer read­ing: The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Improve Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age)

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