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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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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Uncategorized

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About SharpBrains

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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