Put Your Brain to Work and It Will Work for You
We've all seen the news: we can affect how our brains work. Neuroscience tells us that we can increase our chances of maintaining our mental edge and functional independence throughout our lives. How? By working to keep our brains fit the way we work to keep our bodies healthy.
What you do everyday matters to your brain. The choices you make, your level of physical and mental activity, your social life, diet, and sleep habits-all these things can affect cognitive fitness: a state in which we are performing well mentally, emotionally, and functionally.
What Does it Mean to be "Brain Fit"
Notes from the Lab: Research studies in many countries have found four factors that may predict maintenance of cognitive function.
- Increased mental activity
- Increased physical activity
- Increased levels of social engagement
- Control of vascular risk by:
a. Controlling weight
b. Monitoring cholesterol
c. Monitoring blood pressure
d. Not smoking
Everyone knows what a fit body looks like, but fit brains, which don't boast rippled muscles or six-packs, are tougher to distinguish. Brain fitness is a state of mind in which we are performing well cognitively and emotionally. When we're cognitively fit, we're maintaining our mental edge, staying sharp, aging successfully. Brain fitness is not only the absence of disease either Alzheimer's or other types of dementia; it is also the preservation of emotional and cognitive well-being throughout our working years and beyond.
How Mental Activity May Help
How mental activity improves cognition (and reduces dementia risk in later life) is not entirely clear, but a leading theory is that it sets up a "cognitive reserve" in the brain. Intellectual stimulation drives the brain to develop denser synaptic connections. This in effect makes the brain more flexible, enabling it to use alternate neural pathways to adapt to changing demands and possibly offering some measure of protection from normal or disease-related cognitive changes.
"When we stimulate our brain by actively thinking, we are sculpting our own neural architecture." — Jordan Grafman, PhD, Chief, Cognitive Neuroscience Section, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Your Brain on Multitasking
Multitasking has become a way of life — and work — for many of us. We check email while on a conference call. Review slides during a meeting. Or talk on the cell phone while we're driving. Doing two or three things at once may have become so second-nature we don't even realize we're doing it. We may not be able to imagine how we would get through our day if not for this capacity to juggle.
How Can You Put It All Together?
Notes from the lab: Even if life sometimes feels like a rat race, people as a rule are a bit more evolved than rodents. But at the most fundamental levels of brain function- the dance of molecules, proteins, and electrical signals that drive cell-to-cell communication in the brain- we're not so different from out four-legged friends. It's reasonable to presume that generally, what's good for their brains is good for ours as well.
So what can we learn from decades of animal research chronicling the brain benefits of "enriched environments" that we can put to use in our lives? If we could create the perfect enriched environments in which to work, what would it include?
Think about how you can adapt your own work-style (and life in general) to incorporate principles of good cognitive health in each of these areas:
- Working more physical activity into your day, including aerobic exercise, stretching, and moving your body whenever possible.
- Stimulating and challenging the mind by learning something new and seeking out novel experiences or different ways of doing routine things.
- Maintaining plenty of interaction with other people, including meaningful social engagement and connections with friends and loved ones.
- Managing stress and finding positive ways of coping with high-stress periods.
- Being mindful of your diet and sleep habits, working in brain-healthy foods on a daily basis, and giving your brain the sleep it needs to stay alert and attentive.
Learn Faster, Remember Better
There is a long history of research examining animals that are raised in so-called enriched environments — cages that are filled with toys, running wheels and tunnels, and that are shared with other animals. Mice or rats who are exposed to such stimulating environments, which give them ample opportunity for exercising voluntarily, playful exploration, and interacting with others of their species, show significant benefits over animals raised in standard cages without the extra stimulation. Specifically they learn to run a maze faster and more accurately, and to better remember the best path through the maze.
When researchers look at the brains of animals raised in these complex environments, they find increased numbers of synapses, larger blood vessels, higher levels of neuron-supporting brain chemicals, and other physiological changes indicative of improved neural functioning. Enrichment of this sort even boosts the number of new neurons that are generated in the hippocampus, a phenomenon that is associated with better learning.
Your Cognitive Fitness Strategy: An Action Plan for Brain Health
Write it down.
Putting your goals in writing makes them more meaningful. Adding why you want to achieve each goal is a real motivator.
Take baby steps.
You'll feel overwhelmed if you try to address every aspect of brain health at once. Set priorities.
Give yourself a timeframe.
And remember: That implies giving yourself enough time to work at and master your goals.
People who try to do too much too soon often get discouraged and give up altogether. Don't be a victim of your own ambition. If your goals seem impossible, revise them.
Now, determine your baseline. Think about how you measure up against the healthy brain practices below.
Who did I see today, and for what purposes?
What did I do to reconnect with someone I care about today?
How many minutes did I walk today, including around the office?
How did I work exercise into my day?
Did I "walk and talk" at work, rather than emailing or phoning?
What did I learn today?
What routine task did I approach differently today?
Did I challenge my mind? Did I do anything just for fun?
I ate ___ servings of fruits and vegetables today. 3 brain-healthy things I ate today are: ____________________________________
How was my stress level today?
What caused me the greatest stress today? What triggered it?
How did I cope? How did I relax?
How well did I sleep last night? How long? Did I awaken during the night?
If sleep was poor, do I know why?
Did I feel drowsy during the day?
Did I nap?
How you answer these questions may help you determine which areas of brain health you need to focus on as you map out your cognitive fitness plan.
Note: This content has been reprinted with permission of The Conference Board and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives; do not reproduce without permission from The Conference Board/The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.
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Your Brain @ Work: Putting the Science of Cognitive Fitness to Work for You has been developed as part of a nationwide workplace program co-sponsored by the Mature Workforce Initiative of The Conference Board and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives with support from The Atlantic Philanthropies.
The Conference Board is one of the world's pre-eminent business membership and research organizations. Best known for the Consumer Confidence Index and the Leading Economic Indicators, The Conference Board has, for more than 90 years, equipped the world's leading corporations with practical knowledge through issues-oriented research and senior executive peer-to-peer meetings.
The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives is a nonprofit organization of more than 270 neuroscientists who are committed to advancing public awareness of the progress and promise of brain research and to disseminating information about the brain in an accessible fashion. The Dana Alliance, supported entirely by the Dana Foundation, does not fund research or give grants.