Exercise Your Brain to Stay Sharp

In general, cognitive quickness declines with age, but new research out of the University of Texas at Dallas suggests this may be preventable. It seems that, like most muscles, the brain responds positively to cognitive challenges. So, in order to keep your brain feeling young, you may want to build some mental calisthenics into your daily routine.

What Do We Mean by “Challenges”?
In order to determine how an “engaged” lifestyle effects cognitive function later in life, researchers measured brain activity in 39 subjects performing tasks deemed either challenging (digital photography, quilting) or unchallenging (socializing). Specifically, the scientists used fMRI (functional MRI), which detects activity by measuring changes in blood flow throughout the various regions of the brain. The more active the area, the more blood flow required. The researchers found that challenging tasks resulted in increased activity in the frontal, temporal and parietal regions of the brain (which are known to play a role in interpretation and attention). Additionally, following these challenging tasks, the scientists noted that the brain was less active during the unchallenging tasks. So, essentially the challenging tasks increased the brain’s overall efficiency.

Brain Builders
A new field of entertainment has been built around these potential benefits of regular brain workouts. Companies including Nintendo and Lumosity have developed specific programs designed to progressively keep your brain feeling fit. Although some people are skeptical about just how useful these tools are, some research has linked these forms of “brain training” with better cognitive processing and functioning.

Luckily, if puzzles and crosswords aren’t really your cup of tea, several other brain-boosting alternatives do exist. Scientists have found extensive evidence that exercise may be related to increases in brain volume. That daily morning aerobic routine has the potential to boost the size of the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a critical role in learning and memory, both of which tend to diminish as the birthdays build up. Similarly, resistance training has been shown to pump up both memory and white matter volume (the part of the brain involved in making speedy cognitive connections). Research also shows that adequate amounts of shut-eye support optimal brain health. Even an hour of lost “z time” can negatively impact your brain’s structure and aptitude.

At the end of the day, the best offense is a good defense. It’s never too early (or late) to make cognitive health a lifelong priority, so start exercising and prioritizing good sleep, and maybe consider a daily dose of “brain challenge.”

(Feature photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Samantha Lunsky

Samantha Lunsky is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.