The fountain of youth beckons us all, but what good are toned muscles, taut skin, and strong bones if our minds aren’t intact? While weight lifting machines, expensive face creams, and novel dietary supplements have been manufactured for decades, our minds remain a poorly explored area for purposeful training.
Diseases that target our minds, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, are frightening and debilitating. However, achieving some level of control for keeping our minds sharp can be particularly appealing and comforting. Indeed, we can’t expect to brush our teeth for just a week before visiting the dentist and have that be sufficient replacement for months of oral hygiene. So why should we expect that memorizing multiplication tables in elementary school or studying the Kreb’s cycle in high school will keep our memories sharp in adulthood? Furthermore, our brains don’t work like canonical muscles – there isn’t necessarily “muscle memory” – like retaining the ability to ride a bike.
The task of maintaining overall health can be a tricky one – with an exhausting list of requirements. A person needs:
- To get at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise to keep the heart healthy
- To shower and floss after meals for general hygiene
- To lift weights for muscle strength
- To eat produce to obtain micronutrients, balanced with seeds, nuts, healthy fats and super foods all while avoiding trans-fats and processed foods
- To take vitamins and supplements for extra boosts
- … the list goes on and on.
This is for an otherwise ‘healthy’ individual. The list only increases for those who have medical issues and changes almost annually depending on one’s age. In fact, A. J. Jacobs – and others who have followed suit – wrote a book in 2013 (Drop Dead Healthy) as he whimsically tried to follow all of these medical and research based recommendations – despite them often being contradictory. Ultimately, there were too many convoluted suggestions, forcing him to pick and choose the plan and method that worked for him. Each of us can find a plan for physical health and fitness, but should we add brain health to our enormous and ever-growing list of health concerns?
What Are Brain Exercises?
Brain or mental exercising plays off the idea that our experiences do matter – nurture as well as nature. In fact, they mold us by literally shaping our brains. Studies have shown that taxi drivers have increased memory (hippocampus) brain regions; proportional to the number of years they have been driving. A jeweler, with well-defined fine motor control, would perhaps have a larger region in their brain for motor control and balance. Using this logic, people have to “use it or lose it” – exercise your memory and utilize general brain function in order to retain and strengthen those regions of the brain.
A quick search of “brain exercises” on Google or Bing yields a mountainous list of independent links to various games, suggestions, apps, and online tools for exercising your brain. There are a dizzying number of approaches – memory jogging, crosswords, reading, language learning, logic puzzles, to name just a few.
While a weight lifter may down protein shakes intending to increase muscle mass, creating new neurons is not necessarily a good objective. So, what is the true measure of the best exercise for the brain? Not to become an Olympic neural athlete in terms of brain size. We are already born with many neurons and natural “pruning” of these neurons selects for those connections that are most valuable to us. For example, babies worldwide are born with the ability to hear and say the syllables of most world languages. However, most babies are only exposed to a select few (if they are lucky!). They only retain those connections that allow them use of those languages. Such pruning is purposeful and when this process malfunctions mental disorders can manifest. As we age, new dendrites – the extensions that connect neurons together – are forming continuously. Encouraging this smaller-scale growth as well as strengthening existing connections, is the real goal of the best brain exercises.
The scientific hypothesis behind how brain exercises work is that these mental calisthenics promote the production of neurotrophins, proteins that act in concert to promote and develop both neuronal growth and the sprouting of new dendrites. As a result, new dendrites may form, leading to a physically altered, and ‘stronger’, brain. Neurotrophins work best to promote sprouting when the neurons sprouting are being stimulated.
This is why you need to stimulate your neurons by challenging your brain in order to actively promote brain growth. The father of “neurobics,” former Duke University professor Dr. Lawrence Katz, recommends doing odd tasks that truly push your mental system. You can try showering and getting dressed with your eyes closed (be careful!) or using your computer upside down.
Which ‘brain’ exercises most effectively delay or slow diseases like Alzheimer’s?
Ironically, many studies have shown that routine physical exercise is very beneficial in delaying the first symptoms of mental disease. Increased exercise is linked to developing lower levels of proteins that accumulate in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. However, specifically exercising your brain can also improve your health. There is an even a strong link between increased education and a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Researchers believe that neural stimulation may act preventatively, deterring the onset of such disease development.
Many software companies claim to have games that improve mental health and brain function. Unfortunately, while routinely playing these games has been shown to improve a user’s score, the results have not yet applied to the real world. Better performance in the game does not necessarily translate to increased mental sharpness. In other words, playing a video game only makes you better at the video game, but likely not a better driver or shooter in real life.
Many neuroscience researchers are beginning to develop games specifically designed for the purpose of combating mental disease. For example, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco released a game in 2013 entitled, “NeuroRacer.” Players are faced with continuous distractions to strengthen both focus and mental control. These scientists published their findings in Nature, with data suggesting that NeuroRacer players had faster responses in recall memory tests as well as sustained attention tests after just 12 hours. While this is certainly promising, these results should still be interpreted with a grain of salt – the study still needs to test larger populations of diverse education and health backgrounds. Also, while this research found a correlation between game play and improved mental acuity, the link responsible for this improvement remains to be further explored.
The Bottom Line …
The bottom line is that ‘brain exercises’ may in fact help your brain, but only while you are actually using them. While brain exercises have not yet been scientifically shown to have long-term effectiveness, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t helpful. The brain needs continuous maintenance and the work you put in will be rewarded with stronger connections and better memory while you use it. If you want to keep staving off scary mental disease tomorrow, you should work on your brain today.