How to keep your brain fit for the long run

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Shlomo Breznitz
Shlomo Breznitz

Age-related cognitive decline is normal and usually occurs gradually, starting at about age 30. As you age, your senses such as vision and hearing begin to weaken, slowing down the signals they send to the brain, which then slows the brain's information processing.

The good news is that contrary to common wisdom, new brain cells are created throughout our entire life span. Physical exercise, good nutrition and cognitive effort can increase blood flow to the brain, which helps to enhance cognitive reserves.

Building 'cognitive reserves'

Research supports the idea that cognitive reserves can benefit our brains for the long run. Autopsies performed on the brains of cognitively fit elderly people found that although their brains were full of plaques and tangles, their brains tolerated the damage better than others who had less mental stimulation in their lives.

Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University, explains that this shows our brains' ability to build a "cognitive reserve." He compares our brain to a telephone network: The more lines you have connecting different destinations the more likely you will be able to transfer calls via an alternative route even if some of the lines collapse. Whenever you engage in brain-stimulating activities, more neural connections are formed, reducing the effects of neural loss.

In addition, active brain cells stimulate a better blood supply so cells get more oxygen and nutrients. Stimulation also leads to more new branches to other brain cells, making an active neuron the hub of an interconnected network of cells. With increased connections, cells get more stimulation and generate more activity. Heightened brain cell activity also enhances production of Nerve Growth Factor, which further helps maintain cell health.

Each active brain cell can sprout up to 30,000 branches, making it a well-connected member of a huge network of cells. Mental effort stimulates generation of new brain cells that migrate to the area where cells are needed, and "learn" from the surrounding cells to perform the functions necessary. This is especially important for those who are recovering from brain injury or stroke.

The benefits of everyday cognitive challenges versus brain fitness training

Many people wonder if specific brain training exercises are really necessary. After all, it seems that life would present enough continuous challenges that require the brain to process constant stimuli and plan many activities, some of them quite complex, to keep the brain active. At one time, this was the same argument used against the need for physical exercise

Health professionals eventually realized that daily activities in ordinary life are not enough to maintain physical fitness and that the best way to maintain a healthy body was through dedicated workouts. The same is true for cognitive fitness.

One of the challenges of keeping mentally fit is that the brain is a very efficient organ. It employs well-used nerve pathways that allow it to perform activities in "automatic mode" whenever possible. If there are several ways to solve a problem, the brain chooses the easiest way instead of exploring a new approach that may be more difficult. Although this is aimed at making life easier, this process is bad news for long-term cognitive health. Performing a routine act means that very little thought is required for these activities.

As people age, more and more thought processes fall into the category of routine and less effort is required for thought in everyday lives.  Although Sudoku and crossword puzzles are good ways to improve some cognitive functions, just like anything else that is done frequently, the brain adopts routines and strategies for solving these problems after a while.

No 'one size fits all' with brain fitness

For years, scientists have been gathering evidence about the consequences of normal aging. By following groups of people for extended periods of time, they are able to compare their cognitive capabilities. These studies show that normal age-related cognitive decline affects the speed but not quality of our mental functioning. In other words, as we age we tend to perform everyday cognitive tasks more slowly that we did in the past, but our accuracy does not necessarily decline.

In addition, everyone experiences different areas of cognitive decline with age. Memory, reaction time and reasoning abilities usually show the greatest decline. Other abilities such as verbal expression and social knowledge show little or no decline as we age.

Therefore, a "one-size-fits-all" approach to brain fitness is not effective. Because we are all unique with different cognitive strengths and weaknesses, brain fitness activities that may work for one person are likely to be entirely different for someone else. If our working memory is in good shape, we can maximize our efforts for brain fitness by focusing on the skills we need most.

Some key skills which are important for everyday function, but which can decline with age include: eye-hand coordination, short-term memory, visual scanning, divided attention, reaction time, awareness, inhibition, time estimation, shifting attention, visual perception, spatial perception, naming, working memory, and planning.

Identifying the cognitive skills that can be improved is the most important first step of a successful brain fitness program. Committing to strengthening those skills and monitoring various cognitive skills is essential to a healthy brain fitness plan.

An individualized program

To be successful, cognitive training should be designed for each individual's needs and should adapt to changing abilities. It's important to set goals that are personalized and achievable to provide ongoing feedback and motivation.  Similar to physical fitness programs, training programs that are too difficult will be abandoned, yet if they are too easy the brain won't make gains and may become bored with the activities.

Cognitive training, like physical exercise, works best when it is gradual, consistent and adapted as performance improves. Dedicated programs should start with an individual assessment and ideally include three 20-minute sessions per week.

By starting to build your cognitive reserves early through brain fitness activities, you can literally give yourself a head start on brain fitness for life.

Shlomo Breznitz is the founder and president of CogniFit. Previously, he served as the Lady Davis Professor of Psychology and the founding director of the Center for Study of Psychological Stress at the University of Haifa. He has also been visiting professor at the London School of Economics, Berkeley, Stanford, and the National Institutes of Health.

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