It is crucial to adopt a neurohealthy lifestyle as early in life as possible. Current research dictates that by the time symptoms of Alzheimer, dementia, or other cognitive decline show up, there is already too much damage to the brain to repair it. Even preventing further decline has proven elusive. Thus prevention is the better strategy, in fact, it might be the only strategy. So how do we protect our minds from possible damage?
One possible way is by building what is called “cognitive reserve”. The concept refers to developing the brain by mental exercises – reading, writing, education, teaching, professional, and other kinds of work. As a result more connections are formed between different areas of the brain as neurogenesis is stimulated throughout the lifespan.
Cognitive reserve was discovered by accident. Researchers studying the brains of elderly nuns noticed that those nuns who had been teachers, had the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s. What is more surprising is that the teachers had the same amount of damage to the brain as those with advanced Alzheimer’s, however, because they used their minds by reading, writing, and teaching throughout their lives they developed much more connectivity between the various regions of the brain than those who did not. They built a “backup” system that allowed the brain to keep functioning despite the damage to some areas of the brain.
The finding theorized that people with equal amounts of damage due to Alzheimer’s disease, those with lower cognitive reserve will show symptoms years or decades earlier than those with higher cognitive reserve. Thus increasing the amount of neurons and the connections between different areas of the brain is crucial and to do so, several factors have been shown to have the best results: education, type of work (teachers, professionals, high-level executives, and others who use their minds in complex tasks), exercise and physical activity, and good diet.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the protective effect from cognitive reserve comes from education. The higher the education level, the less the age-related cognitive decline. However, it must be emphasized that education does not necessarily mean formal education like college or university. The discipline of these institutions is helpful for many people, but the discipline of using our mind to read, study, think, and articulate what is being learned is not confined to a classroom. This points to the importance of lifelong learning.
Anyone, anywhere can now access tremendous amounts of education resources. Seminars, workshops, talks, books, articles, blogs, videos, and other tools allow anyone to indulge in an educational environment.
To boost neurogenesis and enhance our brains, consider these categories of mental practice:
- Reading. This includes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, newspapers, magazines, even blogs (including Delve’s blog).
- Writing. Anything from journaling, letters, emails, to stories, articles and ads.
- Problem Solving. Puzzles, board games, card games, the more difficult the better.
- Attention and concentration exercises. Immersing ourselves in a single activity of almost any kind will help this. Meditation can also exercise our attention muscles.
- Executive function tasks. It can be part of our work or daily projects (like cleaning the house or organizing a party).
- Discussion groups. Articulating and expressing our thoughts while also hearing and taking in others’ views develops mental flexibility. Our very own ‘Supper club and Talk’ or ‘Psychoanalysis and Film’ developed great conversations among the guests and the speaker, engaging our brains and surrounding in a constructive dialog.
- Musical training. Learning to play a musical instrument builds up the right brain hemisphere.
- Video games. Studies have shown that playing certain video games results in a slight generalization in ability to process a variety of visual cues. New learning increases neurogenesis, whether it takes place in a formal or an informal environment.
It is also important not to limit ourselves to one particular area of brain stimulation. Math problems can be good for stimulating parts of our brain that process mathematics, but the benefit will not accrue to other parts of the brain. Solving crossword puzzles may present a mental challenge, however, the challenge is very narrow in scope and does not generalize to other areas of the brain.
Specialized activity, while good in itself, does not train the brain as a whole. The solution is to engage in a variety of mentally stimulating activities that challenge a broad range of mental functions. We need both right and left brain hemisphere stimulation. We need vocabulary, reasoning as well as musical and intuitive challenges. Exercising our minds with a wide range of mental activities will provide the highest boost to neurogenesis and develop cognitive reserve that will keep our minds sharp even in our nineties.
Taking responsibility for our cognitive functioning means exercising our brains. However, each of us needs to find the best way to do it: learning, reading, writing, reasoning, problem solving, playing music, building attention can all stimulate neurogenesis and build cognitive reserve. There is no quick fix for keeping our mental abilities strong, however, mental exercise increases neurogenesis and expands our world at whatever age we begin.