How our brain ages—and whether or not we maintain our faculties as we get older—is largely determined by how often our minds are challenged throughout life. Here’s how to keep your brain in shape.
Friends and family consider me extremely forgetful. More than misplacing my wallet or losing my phone, I'll wash my hands and forget to turn off the water, or leave the house without closing the front door. I've managed my condition with meditation and by surrounding myself with extremely competent, organized individuals. Just last night I was hunting for my keys. I asked my roommate and if she had seen them and she immediately knew their location—still in the lock on the front door.
I've worried that my absent-mindedness is a precursor to something more serious like Alzheimer's or dementia—both which run in my family. So when I spoke with Shlomo Breznitz, author, psychologist and president and founder of Cognifit, a brain fitness software company, for an upcoming issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser, I was personally interested.
The good news? While my brain may be out of shape, it's not too late to turn things around. Below are a few highlights from our conversation.
Q: At what age can you begin to see cognitive decline?
Shlomo Breznitz: As early as 30 years old you can look at a cross section of a brain and see indications of plaque. Plaque is the distinguishing feature of Alzheimer's disease. Although the plaque is there, the person is not sick because the brain can compensate for whatever loss there is. But as this person grows older, it's important to not let the brain sit idle. To prevent cognitive decline, the brain needs stimulation. It needs to be constantly challenged with new and interesting things.
The brain is a lazy organ. Whenever it has the chance to reach some conclusion without making any effort, it will always do so. The one thing which helps our brains circumvent the need for effort is experience. It can draw on past experiences to find solutions to current problems. Older people have greater amounts of experience. They have seen, heard and done many things several times. There is never really a need to think again and the brain becomes inactive.
Q: Do you think technology is making our brains lazier?
SB: Absolutely. We don't have to remember how to multiply because we have calculators on our cell phones. We don't have to learn landmarks or orient ourselves to a new city when visiting a location, because a device tells us where to go. These are opportunities for the brain to think and problem solve, but technology has taken its place. It's hard to know if technology is contributing to more cases of dementia and Alzheimer's because we all live longer than before. Of course we see more cases.
We know that challenging the brain keeps it in better shape. We also know that these challenges have to have an element of novelty to them, and the right level of challenge for each individual.
Q: Can doing regular mental exercises like crossword puzzles or Sudoku help maintain cognitive function?
SB: In some way yes, but there are limitations. After doing Sudoku a few times you can become an expert. When you're an expert, it becomes a useless exercise because your brain is relying on past experiences—there's no need to actually think. What the brain needs above all else is novelty. The only way our brains register new information is by establishing new contacts between neurons that were not connected before. This is building the network of the brain. Every new experience does this.
Intellectual hobbies like reading interesting books, learning to play a new instrument or speak another language are all fantastic for the brain. Even going to a new place and trying to orient yourself using a map or learning new landmarks is beneficial.
You can hear how genes impact cognitive decline and how retailers can add brain health education to in-store programming in the April issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser.
How do you keep your brain in shape? Don't forget to leave a comment below.