1. What is Neuroplasticity? Neuroplasticity is the scientific term we use to describe the ability of the human brain to change as a result of our experiences. Historically scientists believed that we were born with a finite number of brain cells that worked together in a fixed network, a lot like the computer you are using right now. However, we now know that this is NOT the case. We have discovered that our brains are ‘plastic’ and ‘malleable’. Our brain cells are in a constant state of flux and form new connections with other brain cells as we learn and develop new skills no matter what age we are. Our brain cells can strengthen existing connections when we reinforce important brain processes and remember important information. And our brain cells even break connections with each other when we need to forget unimportant information. Neuroplasticity is what allows us to form the efficient neural networks we need to process information, make skilled movements, think critically and form memories.
2. What is brain fitness and does it really work? Brain fitness is just like physical fitness. Everyone knows that we can exercise our muscles to make them stronger and more flexible, but thanks to neuroplasticity, we now know that we can also exercise our brain cells to make our neural networks stronger and more flexible too. Brain exercises work by capitalizing on the plastic nature of our brains and are designed to improve the efficiency of our neural networks. Exercising our brains with stimulating challenges can help us to think more efficiently, form new memories faster, remember old memories better, improve our motor skills and increase our mental endurance.
3. What are the biggest threats to my brain health? The big three threats to our brain health are obvious… Traumatic head injuries, exposure to toxic substances (including drugs and alcohol) and poor lifestyle habits that can increase our risk of suffering a stroke. However, in addition to the big three, there are other, less obvious factors that can compromise our brain health and performance. For example, lack of sleep or increased stress can result in poor memory retention, decreased focus at home or work and less efficient brain performance in general. Another threat to our brain health is INACTIVITY. This is the dark side of neuroplasticity, just like our muscles shrink when we don’t use them, the neural networks that we use to perform complex mental tasks, store memories and learn new skills break apart and shrink with inactivity. Just like our bodies, when it comes to our brains, the old saying is absolutely true… Use it or lose it!
4. Will brain fitness exercises reduce my risk of dementia? Unequivocally, the answer to this question is… Possibly. One of the saddest facts about age-related dementia is that medical science is not able to accurately predict who will suffer from dementia. Unfortunately, scientists have not yet developed any magic pill for the different forms of age-related dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease. But what we do know for sure is that some people are less likely to suffer from dementia than others… People who partake in cognitively stimulating challenges like playing bridge and other strategic mental challenges and also engage in a social lifestyle have a reduced risk of suffering from dementia in later life. By engaging in these activities, we can build up what is called ‘cognitive reserve’. Essentially, we are able to develop bigger and stronger neural networks so that if we do begin to experience mild cognitive impairments, the impairment onset will be delayed and its progression will be less severe and we will be less likely to develop full-blown dementia in later life.
5. Will I grow new brain cells if I exercise my brain? If anyone ever tells you that you were born with all the brain cells you are ever going to have, they are absolutely wrong. Over the course of our lives we grow new brain cells in a very important part of our brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of our brain that is responsible for the formation of new memories. Interestingly, experiments have shown that lab rats who live in ‘enriched environments’ that are full of stimulating running wheels, places to hide and a social environment will grow more brain cells and perform better on memory tests when compared to lab rats who live in boring cages all by themselves. Although such experiments cannot be performed in humans, this finding suggests that an enriched environment is equally important for us and our brain health. So by enriching our lives with mentally stimulating challenges, brain exercises and social experiences, we are taking the necessary steps required to grow new brain cells and improve our brain health!
6. How will I know that my brain is stronger? Unfortunately we cannot weigh our brains using a simple scale like the one we step on at the gym to weigh our bodies. And as such, it is difficult to objectively quantify brain performance improvements over time… unless we want to subject ourselves to a full neuropsychological assessment. But despite this limitation, we will begin to notice some subtle changes that cannot be measured with a simple scale or ruler after performing brain exercises for a period of time. For example, we might begin to notice that things we once found challenging such as navigating our way around a new shopping mall, remembering new names and faces or maintaining our concentration during casual conversation will become easier. We might also start to notice that we are less mentally tired after a long day at work and less intimidated when faced with a new challenge such as putting together a new living room set after a trip to a hugely famous Swedish furniture store…. When things get easier, and when we become more confident, life becomes more enjoyable. Performing brain exercises and taking on new challenges are fabulous ways to achieve your goals, build your confidence and gain the sense of accomplishment that will bring a smile to our faces and put a spring in our step.
7. How do I know what types of brain exercises I need to do? Thanks to genetics, our past life experiences, and the demands of our individual lives, everyone’s brain is uniquely different. And as a result, we all need to improve our mental performance in different ways. Most often, we are interested in exercises that will improve our memory. But if we really think about it, doing repeated exercises designed to improve memory would be like going to the gym and just doing bicep curls to strengthen our arms. If we really want to build cognitive reserve, it is important that we take a whole body approach to exercising our brains the same we do for exercising our bodies. It is important that we engage in brain exercises that will improve all aspects of our cognitive function including our critical thinking skills, word skills, co-ordination, focus and of course… our memory!
8. In addition to delaying the onset of dementia, how will brain fitness improve my quality of life? Engaging in brain exercises is an important way to reduce our risk of dementia in later life. But brain exercise can also improve our quality of life right now. Most often brain exercises come in the form of games and puzzles that can be played with family and friends and as such, they help to strengthen our social networks and family bonds. Additionally, completing a new challenge or solving a problem that we once thought was impossible can give us an amazing feeling of accomplishment and provide us with a boost of positive energy that can be truly infectious. And finally, cognitive exercises can sharpen our overall cognitive function and translate into improved performance at work, reduced levels of stress and general clarity of mind.
9. What is the difference between a game and a brain exercise? Yes, a lot of games are brain exercises. But no, not all brain exercises are games. If we are serious about brain fitness, we can purchase comprehensive software packages that will intensively exercise each of our cognitive domains and allow us to track our performance over time. But for the most part, we can purchase brain bending logic puzzles, strategy games, memory games and 3D puzzles that will challenge the way we think and improve our overall mental performance.
10. How can I incorporate brain fitness into my healthy lifestyle? By engaging in brain fitness activities for as little as 5 minutes a day, we can expect to see noticeable and lasting improvements in our mental performance. The best way to achieve this goal is to incorporate brain fitness into our daily routines. When we are on the go, when we have some down time at the office and when we are at home with the family, these are all perfect times boost our brainpower with fun and challenging brain exercises.
By Dr. Justin R. Davis, PhD