Maintaining and Improving Brain Function

small__3703707045In recent years, breakthroughs in brain imaging have shown that our brains change, literally rewiring themselves, to adapt to the ways we spend our time. What this means is that when we do certain types of activities, we learn new skills and our brains change to adapt to our activities.

A variety of activities have been shown to help maintain brain functions and aid in healthy aging. One study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco indicated that as much as half the cases of Alzheimer’s disease could be attributed to lifestyle choices and behaviors that can be altered. In order of impact, the risk factors are lower education, smoking, lack of exercise, depression, mid-life high blood pressure, diabetes, and mid-life obesity. Most of the activities that alter these risks are just common sense, such as exercise and a healthy diet.

Through regular practice, it is also possible to change the brain to improve memory, coordination, reflexes, pattern recognition, and many other abilities . To some extent, it is possible to overcome cognitive difficulties such as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and even brain injuries resulting from disease or trauma. To what extent is this possible? Well, science doesn’t know how much about how the brain is capable of rewiring itself, or changing its physical structure. Certainly, brain change varies with age, with the individual, the amount of time and effort spent on different activities, and a host of other variables . Perhaps some injuries, some impairment cannot be overcome, some capabilities cannot be increased beyond a certain point, but there is only one way to find out, which is to see how you respond to these practices.

Now, really, every exercise in this book, if practiced regularly, will improve your abilities and cause your brain to change to some extent. In this chapter, however, we’ll mainly talk about things you can do as part of the regular activities in your daily life. Some of these practices help maintain healthy brain function and a few may help improve your brain.

Just like muscles, the brain works on a use-it-or-lose basis. Here are some easy ways to work that grey matter!

• Throw away your calculator. The next time you do your household accounting, use paper or do the calculations in your head. (If you’ve always sucked at math, take your time and check your work, but still give it a try.) When you eat out, figure the tip in your head.

• Do crossword puzzles, word jumbles, and Sudoku. Any games that make you use math or language skills will activate areas of the brain that need regular stimulation.

• Play chess, go, bridge, or other games that require memory and reason.

• Practice grocery shopping without looking at your list. Write your list, but keep it in your pocket when you get to the store. As you walk through the aisles, think about what you are fixing in your next few meals. Try visualizing the shelves in your pantry and refrigerator to see what you need. When you are ready to check out, look at your list to see if you’ve remembered everything.

• Have sex! Apart from the generally beneficial effects that sex has on blood flow, stress, pain, and anxiety, there is some evidence that orgasm may promote the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus.

• Get some exercise. Generally, we need at least two and a half hours of exercise a week. Studies indicate that walking is particularly helpful. As little as a brisk walk for a half hour a day is enough to make a huge difference. Regular exercise will help control weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure, lower stress, improve balance, and promote good sleep, but it will also promote the production of new brain cells and increase brain volume.

• Go back to school and learn something new. Whatever you learn should be difficult, though it doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Learning a new language (particularly a language very different from English, such as Chinese) or a coordinated skill (such as playing a musical instrument) can be particularly helpful. In general, studies show that the more educated your brain is, the better it holds up as you get older.

• Teach a class. Organizing class material and staying ahead of your students can be at least as challenging as taking a class.

• Eat healthy. Obviously, a good diet helps you in many ways, but researchers have found that flavonoids can be of great benefit in maintaining a healthy brain. Here are some of the subgroups of flavonoids and there most common sources:
Flavonoid Food Sources
Anthrocyandins — Berries, grapes, and wines (dark fruits such as blueberries and cherries are especially good)
Isoflavones –Soy, including tofu
Flavones — Parsley, celery
Flavonols — Spinach, peppers, onions
Flavanones — Tea (particularly green tea), coffee, cocoa (dark chocolate), and red wine

Staying well-hydrated helps too. Remember, nearly 90% of the brain is water!

• Get plenty of sleep. We told you a lot of these practices are common sense. You mother probably told you something like this. In any case, it’s important to get good sleep. Sleep deprivation seriously degrades memory and executive function, particularly long-term sleep deprivation.

• Be happy. Smile. Really. Just smiling is enough to significantly influence our mood. Enjoying life, maintaining a reasonably optimistic viewpoint, and expressing positive emotion all seem to have beneficial effects on brain function.

• Seek novelty! The brain loves novelty and will continue to adapt to new learning and experiences until the novelty wears off. Here are just a few of the practices that will help keep your brain fresh and stimulated:

> Use your non-dominant hand to do things as much as possible, such as brush your teeth and put on your clothes. Try spending a few minutes a day writing with your non-dominant hand (though don’t drive or operate heavy machinery for a little while afterwards).
> Shower, get dressed, or do some other simple actions with your eyes closed. Try finding house key and fitting it into your front door lock using only your sense of touch.
> Change your routines. For example, try taking a completely different route to work or the grocery store. Even things as simple as crossing your arms differently or moving your wastebasket from its regular position might be of benefit.
> Learn a new word every couple of days. Find a word you are unfamiliar with in the dictionary. Go over the meaning and think about ways you might use the new word.
> Recite the alphabet backwards. Try this exercise a couple of times a day until you can recite the alphabet backwards as quickly as you can say it in the regular order. Once reciting the alphabet seems easy, pick 20 or 30 affirmations or suggestions and try practicing writing them backwards.
> Try writing your name backwards and upside down. Alternatively, turn this book upside down and try reading the next page from the bottom to the top.

Remember, once the novelty is gone, your brains gets bored and starts coasting, so once you get used to a pattern, find something else to try. There is a limited benefit, however, to sheer novelty. Try to find activities that are challenging. It is particularly helpful to practice activities that use multiple senses or involve coordinating multiple actions.

• Travel. As they say, travel broadens the mind, but it also seems to broaden the brain. Studies show that “life space” – literally, how much you get around outside your house – is a major indicator of how much you are engaging and challenging your cognitive abilities.

• Socialize. This might be the most important point in this chapter. Just as travel helps stimulate the brain, getting out and meeting people seems to play a critical role in keeping our brains healthy. We are built to be social creatures and a lot of our brain power seems to be dedicated to recognizing facial patterns, communicating, and generally trying to figure out other people.

• Try the other exercises in this book. Most of the practices in this book can help keep your brain stimulated and aid in healthy aging.

Take with grain of salt: It is important to note that most mental exercises do not seem to cause generalized improvements. For example, playing a lot of Sudoku will make you better at Sudoku, but it isn’t clear how much that translates to improvements in other activities. As noted in our chapter on memory, the “N back” exercise is one of the few practices that has shown clinical evidence of increasing overall memory function and fluid intelligence. It is mainly the physical practices such as aerobic exercise that have been shown to cause major physical changes in the brain. The exercises in this chapter, however, will help keep your brain stimulated…and there’s a lot of evidence that lack of stimulation and learning is bad for brain function. The exercises described here may not turn you into a genius (if you aren’t one already), but they will help you take advantage of and keep the capabilities you already have.


The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain, Judith Horstman, Jossey-Bass, 2012

From Development to Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System, editied by Charles E. Ribak et al, Oxford University Press, 2009

Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation, Richard J. Davidson and Antoine Lutz, IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, September 2007

The SharpBrains Guide to Brian Fitness, Alvaro Ferdinand and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, SharpBrians, 2009

Memory enhancement in healthy older adults using a brain plasticity-based training program: A randomized, controlled study, Henry W. Mahncke et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, August 2006

Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises, Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin, Workman Publishing Company, 1998

The 100% Brain Course, Melvin D. Saunders, Creative Alternatives Center, 2001



All Content Copyright 2012 Bill Whitcomb and Taylor Ellwood