Presently, we are living longer and in better shape than our ancestors. As a result of our increasing lifespans, the divide between our "brainspan" and lifespan have become more apparent. Essentially our physical health is degrading at a lesser rate than our mental health. This has raised new questions about the possibilities of bridging the gap and improving our brain performance to ensure that we live a full life while living for longer periods of time. Scientists are working towards solutions and investigating options that will help to keep our cognitive health lasting as long as our physical health.
We investigated the science of brain fitness in order to determine strategies that are likely to help keep our brains sharp at any age. Read our findings below.
Nutritional Habits and Diet
The Query: Is our brain function affected by the foods that we eat?
The Ruling: While it is believed by scientists that healthy food is as beneficial for your brain as it is for your physical body, there is still a debate about which food is most beneficial for your brain. Even though more research is needed to arrive at a conclusion, fish seems to be the most beneficial at the top of the list.
Studies show that eating fish can yield tremendous benefits for your mental health. According to a study published in the 2005 Archives of Neurology, individuals who ate fish once a week showed slower cognitive decline by 10% compared to those who did not eat fish regularly. This is further supported by another study that appeared in the same journal. This study found that people who consumed fish at least once a week reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer disease by as much as 60%. Although there is no conclusive evidence, it is believed by some scientists that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish contribute to reducing inflammation which in turn leads to a healthier brain.
Several studies over the last several years on vitamins have yielded conflicting results regarding brain health. According to recent studies, getting the right amount of Folate and vitamins B6 and B12 can reduce the risk of dementia and slow cognitive decline; however more recent studies suggest that getting too much can actually cause adverse effects by increasing the risk of decline.
Moreover, according to some studies of antioxidants, primarily vitamins E and C, there is compelling evidence that oxidative stress of older brains can be reduced when you get enough of the right vitamins. On the other hand, there are several studies that have found that these vitamins seem to have no effect at all.
The benefits of other foods and supplements continues to be the focus of many scientific studies searching for a conclusive correlation between cognitive health and the consumption of things like green tea, gingko biloba, blue berries, spinach, apple sauce, and garlic.
Therapies based on Neuroplasticity
The Query: Will my brain benefit from "brain exercises" and keep it fit?
The Ruling: The brain is able to change the way it functions and this is known as natural neuroplasticity of the brain. This incredible ability is potentially one of the keys to improving cognitive performance as we get older and reduce the incidence of pathological problems such as Alzheimer's. However, it's important to use this ability correctly by using the right brain exercises.
Supporting Facts: Studies over the last decades have determined that the brain retains its natural plasticity for our entire lives and repetitive, intensive exercises engage neuroplasticity in adulthood. You probably could have guessed that in similar ways physical exercise helps keep your body fit that mental exercises keep your brain fit. This is why many people have been inspired to do activities such as Sudoku and crosswords that exercise the mind and keep your brain engaged. Many studies have found that doing challenging and new activities can be beneficial for your cognitive health by engaging your brain's natural plasticity through the aging process.
Brain fitness exercises have been taken to another level as scientists have become involved in the development and creation of targeted and scientifically-refined exercises based on neuroplasticity – fortunately these exercises are now available for personal use!
Body Physical Exercise
The Query: Can my brain fitness benefit from physical exercise?
The Ruling: In addition to the clear physical benefits, body exercises are great for your brain too! While it is true that performing physical exercises are great for your cognitive health, many scientists still debate which physical exercises are most beneficial for brain fitness and why physical exercises even improve the brain. We may soon discover specific exercises that are best for cognitive development as research on the subject continues, primarily by the National Institute on Aging. Also, for those of you who have yet to start a physical exercise regime, rest assured knowing that studies indicate that the cognitive health benefits gained from physical exercise can be experienced by someone at any age, even in small doses.
Supporting Facts: The results of a large study which appeared in an Annals of Internal Medicine article stated that "regular exercise [15 minutes a day, at least 3 times a week] is associated with a delay in onset of dementia and Alzheimer disease." According to the study, the onset of dementia can be reduced by 32% with regular exercise. The results of this study are supported by a large amount of research that is currently being conducted on the subject which shows a strong correlation between keeping your brain sharp and physical fitness.
Alzheimer's and Medications
The Query: Is there any medication I can take to reverse or prevent pathological dementia like Alzheimer's disease and/or normal cognitive aging?
The Ruling: At the moment there are no approved medications that can reduce or prevent normal cognitive changes resulting from the aging process. There are some medications available to target symptoms of some cognitive issues such as Alzheimer's disease but these medications are not cures or forms of prevention. Although there are no approved medications right now, there is a lot of research taking place on this front. Even with all of the research that is being conducted it is not likely that a "magic bullet" cure or prevention will be found any time soon.
Supporting Facts: There are presently dozens of medications for Alzheimer's being developed and tested by scientists who are attempting to find a way to prevent or cure the disease. One of the promising drugs that was being tested a few years ago was suspended because there were a high number of test subjects that experienced serious side effects. While other drugs are being developed and tested, there are currently no drugs that cure or prevent the disease. Even though the current drugs available do not provide a cure or reverse the disease, there are some drugs such as cholinesterase inhibitors which have been designed to treat early to mid-stage Alzheimer's patients. The reason that these medications are prescribed is to increase the acetylcholine levels in the brain. This is a chemical that helps with memory functions and other brain skills. Similarly, there are some medications that are prescribed for treatment of moderate to severe stages of Alzheimer's Disease and these drugs are designed to manage glutamate production in the brain. Information storage, memory, and learning functions are all assisted by glutamate production in the brain.
The Query: Will we ever see a brain prosthesis or transplant?
The Ruling: While brain implants may someday be possible, at the moment the ability to transplant the brain is somewhere between reality and science fiction. Someday it may be possible to help return brain functions to a normal state or repair damaged parts with brain prostheses.
Supporting Facts: It may be possible in the future to replace damaged brain cells caused by diseases such as Alzheimer's following a research at the University of Southern California. The researchers at the USC have been working on a computer chip that is currently replacing part of a rat's hippocampus. They hope to able to implant a similar chip in humans to help restore brain functions in those who have suffered brain damage.
Similar to the ways that combining things like a better diet can help generate better results from physical fitness, keeping your brain sharp will likely require a combination of several strategies to achieve optimal results – that could include physical exercise, brain training, a healthy diet and even approved medications.
The future looks bright when it comes to keeping the brain healthy as science continues to make advancements on all of these fronts. As research continues over the coming decades we may figure out the ideal recipe for matching "brainspan" to "lifespan".