Keeping Your Brain Sharp

Friday, July 27th, 2012 by American Senior Fitness Association   View This Issue of Experience!

The following article was written by Lynn Wallen, PhD, the Vice President for Research and Development of Super Noggin TM. She and several other Super Noggin staff members have successfully completed the American Senior Fitness Association’s in-depth "Brain Fitness for Older Adults" professional education program. We know that you will enjoy Dr. Wallen’s informative report, below:

If you are one of the "worried well," concerned about staying mentally sharp as you age, here is good news for you! There are things you can do to be proactive about your brain health.

Brain fitness is a topic of great interest right now, not only because 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day, but also because of new and exciting discoveries in neuroscience.

Probably the most surprising finding is that it is possible to grow new neurons — a type of brain cell — throughout life in a process called neurogenesis. This is a revolutionary discovery because neurons are not like other cells in the body. Unlike skin cells or blood cells or muscle cells, brain cells do not divide and reproduce themselves. That is why scientists used to think that once our brains were developed in childhood, we had all the brain cells we would ever have. The only change would be that they would gradually die off as we aged, unable to be replaced.

But now we know that new neurons can develop from neural stem cells. The neural stem cells act like seeds from which new neurons develop in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. This part of the brain is involved with learning and memory, so if we could choose any place for new neurons to grow, we’d probably pick the hippocampus.

In addition to growing new brain cells, we can also strengthen the connections between existing brain cells and even re-wire those connections in response to our experiences. This ability of the brain to adapt and change is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity allows us to compensate for loss of function due to injury or illness and allows us to adjust to certain disabilities.

For example, studies show that a part of the brain devoted to vision will alter itself to respond to touch in blind people who learn Braille.

Or, a right-handed person whose right arm ends up in a cast for many months can learn to do things with his left hand that he could not do — or thought he could not do — with his left hand before. The brain is amazingly adaptable and plastic.

We can use what we know about neurogenesis and neuroplasticity to keep our brains active and growing. Only thirty percent of how well (or badly) we age is governed by our genes. The other seventy percent is under our control through lifestyle choices we make every day. And what is the number one lifestyle choice? To stay active.

Regular physical exercise is the keystone to physical health. Everyone knows this. But not many know that physical exercise is also necessary for brain fitness because the condition of your brain is closely tied to the fitness of your body. People who do not move enough are not pumping blood and oxygen to their brains to the degree necessary to support the growth of new brain cells.

And the news just keeps getting worse and worse for the couch potatoes. Here is what the neuroscientists currently tell us about neurogenesis: The only way to grow new neurons is through physical exercise. Mental exercise and cognitive stimulation will strengthen the connections between brain cells you already have, but only moving can grow new neurons. One experiment suggests that the exercise has greatest benefit if it is voluntary.

In studies of mice, those who had a running wheel in their cage produced a 15 percent growth in their hippocampus — the part of the brain that processes memory. Mice love to run on their wheels and will spend several hours a day doing it if they can. The sedentary mice in cages without a running wheel did not increase their brain size, and — here’s the interesting part — a group of mice that were forced to do exercise did not increase their gray matter either. These mice were thrown into a pool of water and had to swim around until they found a way to get out of the water. Mice don’t like to swim. It appears that you have to choose to do the exercise to get the brain benefits.

The 15 percent growth in the hippocampus occurred in young mice. What happened when senior citizen mice were put through the same experiment? They had even better results: Three times the number of new cells in the hippocampus. No one knows why the old mice did so much better. But the evidence was there.

In addition to the brain-boosting power of exercise, there are many other benefits to staying active. This list is published by the National Institute on Aging:

  • Increased self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Reduced anxiety and stress
  • Improved mood; may alleviate depression
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased energy
  • Decreased risk of heart disease
  • May improve cholesterol levels
  • Slowed rate of bone loss with age
  • More efficient use of insulin
  • Lowered risk of certain cancers
  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Helps control weight and prevent obesity; increases calorie burning efficiency.
  • So get moving every day! It’s not only good for your body, it’s the best brain booster available.

    This article is based on Step One of "Ten Steps to Brain Fitness," a workshop in the Super Noggin TM brain fitness series developed by LEAF Ltd., a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting cognitive wellness. Lynn Wallen, Vice President for Research and Development, is the designer of the Super NogginTM program. For more information, visit www.SuperNoggin.org

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