Ask any healthy senior what worries them the most about the ageing process and there’s a good chance they will mention the fear of developing some form of dementia. As life expectancy has increased so too has the expectation of staying healthy and mentally sharp, and ensuring better brain health.
But looking after our brain health isn’t something just to be thought about towards the latter half of our lives, it matters across the trajectory of our lifespan beginning in childhood.
Our cognition is how well we think, learn and remember.
Which is why cognitive health (or brain fitness) deserves just as much of our attention as physical health and mental well-being.
There is now a plethora of helpful advice as to what makes a difference. The problem is that as our understanding of how the brain works has increased there has also been an increase in the amount of misinformation, hype and plain wishful thinking resulting in confusion of knowing what you really can trust to work.
Brain fitness is not a magic pill to dementia prevention and it won’t turn you into a genius. What it does provide is a useful framework (based on peer-reviewed scientific research) to help us become more adept with our thinking skills, adapt more easily to our changing environment and enjoy leading fuller, richer lives.
Rather than seeking the next “superfood” or nootropic to enhance performance, brain fitness is all about making better, brain-healthy lifestyle choices to enhance brain health and function.
Perhaps you’ve noticed it’s easy to do those things we’re already good at and enjoy, not so much when it’s stuff we find challenging. You may pay close attention to your nutrition, but if your work schedule means you never get to exercise and your relaxation takes the form of plonking in front of some brain dead TV in the evenings, then you’re missing out on an opportunity to manage your stress more effectively and boost your mood.
Our modern way of living with high speed, high pressure and high stress can make the challenge of trying to fit in all those things we intuitively know to be important hard.
That’s why it’s important to take stock and reappraise just what is important to you. For example, if your goal is to advance your career prospects, then being mentally flexible, capable of holding and manipulating data to solve problems quickly even when under pressure is a must.
Getting on well with people, especially those who don’t like or who don’t like us matters, if our feelings of distrust, antipathy or worry impact our performance. Developing good emotional regulation builds better resilience to stress and makes it easier to retain access to those higher executive thinking skills of logic, reasoning and decision making.
When studying, knowing how to boost effective learning and retention of the course material will enhance your ability to achieve the desired result you know you’re capable of. And no, cramming doesn’t work. Period.
Neuromyths abound, so checking in with what’s valid when it comes to how to pay better attention, manage distractions and get enough sleep will pay off handsomely in the longer term.
There is a common assumption that brain training means online computer games. The billion-dollar industry clearly has us in its sights. But does the hype live up to the promise? It depends. While neuroscientists continue to wage battle over whether brain training does or doesn’t work, online brain training isn’t enough to retain and enhance our cognitive capabilities. Cross-training the brain involves physical exercise, learning new skills and staying connected socially with others. Choose activities that provide novelty, variety and a continuing challenge. Whether it’s learning ball-room dancing, signing up for a computer coding class or practising your best Mandarin, it’s all about driving neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new and strengthen existing synaptic connections between neurons. The harder the mental activity the greater the mental stretch, so don’t choose the easier option!
The term “use it or lose it” is really about providing your brain with the opportunity to create a greater cognitive reserve, and keep it functioning well for longer.
Retirement can be a tricky time. The change in routine, reduced social interaction and lowered mental stimulation can, unless you have pre-prepared for this transition phase, be associated with a rapid drop off in mental sharpness. Which is why staying engaged, signing up for voluntary or charity work and continuing to do lots of different things is helpful.
What does a brain fitness program look like?
It’s a framework that encourages participation in attending to a healthy diet, getting sufficient physical exercise, getting enough sleep, and managing stress effectively along with keeping to an open mind, staying curious about what else the world has to offer, learning new things and staying socially connected. Such a program may also incorporate a baseline assessment of present cognitive ability and basic information about how the human brain works.
There is no one way of building brain fitness that is better than others. It’s about discovering what fits best with you, and your circumstances. The place to start is identifying where your pain points are. Which areas of brain function do you struggle with? Are you good with numbers but hopeless at navigating your way to a new destination? Do you find focus a problem or are you making too many mistakes because you’re tired?
Identifying what needs addressing makes it easier to prioritise where to start and which brain fitness tools to use first.
Dr Jenny runs a brain fitness program tailored to improve mental performance at work, boost learning and enhance overall brain health. To find out more email firstname.lastname@example.org.