This week is Brain Awareness Week, so let me share–and let’s discuss!–these 10 Key Facts to Harness Neuroplasticity & Improve Brain Fitness 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. 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.
- 2. 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).
- 3. Physical exercise and increased fitness promote brain functioning through a variety of mechanisms, such as increased brain volume, blood supply and growth hormone levels. In particular, cardiovascular exercise seems to bring the greatest brain benefits.
- 4. Mental stimulation strengthens the connections between neurons (synapses), improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning and building your cognitive reserve–which helps your brain better cope both normal aging and Alzheimer’s pathology in the long-term.
- 5. The only leisure activity that has been associated with reduced cognitive function is watching television. What could explain that? Well, routine, passive activities do not challenge the brain. Keeping up the challenge requires going to the next level of difficulty, trying something new, generating new thoughts and strategies and lessons learned.
- 6. The Mediterranean Diet, supplemented with olive oil and nuts, is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline.
- 7. Moderate doses of caffeine increase alertness but there is no clear sustained lifetime health benefit (or harm).
- 8. Taking “brain supplements” does not seem to boost cognitive function or reduce risks of cognitive decline or dementia, unless directed to address an identified deficiency.
- 9. Chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit neurogenesis. Memory and general mental flexibility are impaired by chronic stress…so it’s good to see the growing evidence that meditation and biofeedback can successfully teach users to self-regulate physiological stress.
- 10. No size fits all…so it’s critical to understand and address individual needs and starting point.
What counts in terms of neuroplasticity and brain health is not reading this article–or any other–but practicing healthy behaviors every day. Revisit the fact above that really grabbed your attention, ideally one that you may have overlooked and therefore may bring most “bang for the buck,” and make a decision to try something new this spring.
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