Brain Health Lifestyle: Mental Activity

By now you are well aware of the importance and power of “brain reserve,” the buildup of protective neuronal connections across the lifespan. Brain reserve is one outcome of brain health and is believed to be able to delay the onset of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). I have proposed a five factor brain health lifestyle that includes Socialization, Physical Activity, Mental Stimulation, Nutrition, and Spirituality. Each of these major factors is critical to the health of everyone. As an integrated and proactive lifestyle, the activities and behaviors within each factor can help to shape a healthy brain, beyond what is generated from a passive brain.Mental Stimulation (e.g. brain fitness) is one of the major brain health lifestyle factors. Most people think of the brain as a cognitive or thinking system. While this is certainly true, your brain is far more than simply a thinking system. Your brain is responsible for your emotions, movement, sense of well being, imagination, creative and artistic side and so much more. The brain as a thinking system is certainly well accepted and deservingly so.Research has underscored particular activities that reduce the risk of dementia (brain healthy) and fit well into the mental stimulation slice of my brain health lifestyle. These include:

  • Fit Brains brain games
  • Reading and writing
  • Learning a second language
  • Sign Language
  • Travel
  • Board Game Playing
  • Computerized Brain Exercises
  • Puzzles
  • Musical instrument playing

Obviously, FitBrains provides an important tool and resource for you to stimulate your brain on an ongoing basis. The key element to making mental stimulation a brain health activity is to engage in the “novel and complex.” (e.g. brain games) Tasks that represent the novel and complex for you probably will stimulate your cortex and lead to the development of new neural connections. This is what leads to the buildup of brain reserve. In this scenario, brain fitness using activities such as FitBrains can be considered a health promoting activity, and one that should be included in a proactive brain health lifestyle.

Why Brain Health Matters

Health and healthy lifestyles have become a priority in the lives of more people than ever before. Millions of people walk or jog, engage in formal exercise, meditate, and abide by healthy diets all to maximize the healthy of their bodies. Interestingly, our culture, like so many before, prioritizes the health of the heart as most important. Indeed, the Egyptian royalty were buried with every organ removed except the heart because they believed the heart was the center of the universe.

We in the United States continue to prioritize the heart, a pump that perfuses blood throughout our body. We provide meaning and import to the heart it really does not deserve. For example, we ascribe love and emotion to the heart as when we say “I love you with all my heart or you broke my heart.” While common prose, it is really a silly statement. It is time to realize that our every thought, emotion, and motor behavior is due to the miraculous system of the human brain.

With recent research supporting the human brain as a highly dynamic, constantly reorganizing system (plasticity) capable of generating new brain cells and brain reserve, we are now able to apply a lifestyle that promotes health for the brain. Perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes of our time is the fact that most do not even know the basics of this critical part of our being-our brain!

Brain Health is important because our commitment to a lifelong lifestyle that promotes development of brain reserve can enhance our ability to maintain our thinking abilities, our memory, and our “life story.” Many Americans are afraid of brain disease and fear losing their memory. Brain health is a proactive and positive means to do what is in our control to maximize and preserve our brain function.

I have proposed and published a “Brain Health Lifestyle” that is proactive and contains five major factors to form your Brain Health Pie:

  • Physical Activity
  • Mental Stimulation
  • Spirituality
  • Nutrition
  • Socialization

Together, these five components each have specific research-based activities that relate to brain health and development of brain reserve. FitBrains provides opportunity for brain games that is considered important to the mental stimulation piece of the brain health pie. I will outline each of the five major components to your brain health lifestyle in upcoming blogs.

Normal Brain Changes with Aging

Nearly everyone experiences the inability to recall a name or to struggle trying to find the correct word. These moments are referred to “tip of the tongue” phenomena and can be quite frustrating. The good news is that word finding problems is not necessarily a sign of pathology or disease, and indeed likely represents changes that occur with the normal aging process.

Around the age of 50 our brains begin to change structurally and functionally. We lose brain cells over the lifespan with a disproportionate number of cells lost in the frontal lobes. These are normal changes and the functional change associated with aging is also considered normal. We tend not to freely recall information, our information processing speed slows, and we may struggle with word finding. Once again, these are typically considered normal changes with aging and it is most common to experience such changes around age 50.

I believe that brain exercise, particularly in the cognitive areas listed above, can help to keep these functions relatively sharp and maintained. Passivity certainly will not help the brain and indeed it may exacerbate the changes in our cognitive processes.

Get started today on brain games and turn to FitBrains as your source for a good brain fitness workout.

Why Should I be interested in Brain Health?

More and more we hear and read about the supposed powers of mental exercise. While this seems to make sense it is natural to wonder how and why “brain fitness” is beneficial.

We have learned within the past decade that the human brain has the ability to generate new brain cells (neurogenesis). The hippocampus, a structure that lies deep in the middle of each temporal lobe and serves functions of memory, learning, and spatial representation, is the site of such neurogenesis. Interestingly, this is the exact site of neurogenesis established in rodents in the 1950s. There appears to be something critically important about the hippocampus with regard to new brain cell development.

Similar to rodent brains the human brain reacts to environmental input in generally predictable ways. Damaging, punishing, and negative input can do structural and functional damage to the hippocampus. In contrast, positive, nurturing, and stimulating input can help to foster structural and functional enhancements. As we noted earlier on this blog, the human brain seeks and enjoys mental stimulation and exposure to the “novel and complex.”

A daily brain workout (e.g. brain games) can help to provide the brain (cortex) the stimulation it seeks. Environments that are considered complex and novel by your brain will provide the most benefit particularly when compared to input that is rote and passive. Daily brain games that challenge the cortex will also help to build new cellular connections (synapses) that in turn reflect “brain reserve.” Recall, brain reserve is believed to delay the onset of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

One of the greatest fears of the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, is the loss of memory and onset of dementia. A proactive approach to try and delay the onset of such loss and disease is a lifelong brain health lifestyle, part of which includes daily exposure to the novel and complex. 

What exactly is Brain Reserve?

Brain reserve refers to a brain that has formed many cellular connections and is rich in brain cell density. The power of brain reserve is that we believe it has the ability to delay the clinical onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Simply put, AD will have to work longer and harder to manifest itself if it invades a brain that has built up reserve.

I often use the example of a brain that looks like a jungle versus one that looks like an island with one palm tree. In this example, the brain that looks like a jungle is the healthy brain because it has tremendous cellular connections like the density of a jungle and therefore brain reserve. If you think of AD as a weed whacker, it will invade the brain and begin to do its damage by destroying brain cells. However, it will take AD a long time to show any impact if it has to destroy a jungle’s worth of brain cell connections. In contrast, AD will manifest quickly after infiltration into the brain if it simply needs to destroy only a relatively few cellular connections (the island with one plam tree).

Brain reserve is developed over the lifespan as one exposes his or her brain to the novel and complex, the enriched environment on a daily basis. A Brain Health Lifestyle that involves Mental Stimulation (e.g. brain games), Physical Activity, Spirituality, Socialization, and Nutrition can help to build up brain reserve and maintain a healthy brain.