Young adults assume brain health isn’t relevant to them; older folks are convinced it’s too late to do anything about it. Neither is correct. Both beliefs are rooted in a misconception: equating brain health with prevention of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other kinds of impaired thinking, learning, and memory known as cognitive decline. While these are important — perhaps, for many, the most important — aspects of brain health, the overall assumptions are tantamount to believing aerobic exercise pays off only in your golden years.
Brain health, like physical fitness, offers benefits throughout our lives. But the sooner we attend to it, the better.
What Is Brain Health?
One of the most frequently cited definitions of brain health, endorsed by an American Heart Association/American Stroke Association advisory panel, emphasizes “optimal capacity to function adaptively in the environment.”
Signs of good brain health, these experts explain, include the ability to effectively:
- Pay attention, perceive, and recognize sensory input
- Learn and remember
- Solve problems and make decisions
- Be mobile
- Regulate emotion.
The brain is made up of nerve cells. Historically, these neurons were believed to die off — because of aging, disease, injury, and behaviors like consuming alcohol — with no hope of forming new ones.
In the late 1990s, researchers determined that, even in the elderly, new brain cells are created (a process called neurogenesis) in certain areas of the brain. More recently, this finding has been refuted.
Either way, science recognizes that brain health can be preserved in the long term and possibly enhanced in the near term by generating new connections — called synapses or, in series, neural pathways. These form the circuitry to enable the complex thoughts, behaviors, and consciousness that make humans distinct.
Failure to exercise these pathways can gradually inactivate them, leading to impairment. As the saying goes, use it or lose it.
The brain’s ability to adapt, neuroplasticity, underscores why we must continually challenge our brains and expose ourselves to new experiences to stay on top of our game.
But don’t overlook neuroplasticity’s darker side: repeatedly activating synapses associated with depression, worry, and low self-esteem, for example, can reinforce harmful patterns, making them harder to change.
How to Improve Brain Health
Many believe the best way to exercise the brain is with puzzles like crosswords and sudoku as well as games that challenge memory, word recall, problem-solving skills, or spatial tasks. But research is mixed on the benefits.
In 2016, brain game researchers rigorously reviewed the “evidence that best supports the claims of effectiveness” and concluded:
We find extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance.
Put differently, memorizing longer and longer strings of words, for example, may help some people increase their score in a word recall game but fail to yield changes in daily life.
While the benefits of brain games remain controversial, scientists agree that certain behaviors support brainpower.
Distilling available research, AARP recommends 5 practices that fuel brain health throughout the lifespan:
- Connect. Staying active with a diverse social network can improve brain plasticity and help preserve brainpower.
- Move. Exercising (both cardio and strength training) may help increase and repair brain cells, while leading to more alertness throughout the day.
- Discover. Adopting a hobby (like painting, photography, or learning a language) and generally challenging yourself with a new and different activity (even using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth) can boost brainpower.
- Relax. Managing stress, learning relaxation techniques, and getting restorative sleep can help support learning, memory, and adaptability.
- Nourish. Eating fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines obtained from unpolluted sources), whole grains, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, and high-fiber produce helps protect brain health. Foods high in sugar, saturated fat, and trans-fatty acids increase risk of memory loss and cognitive decline. Dietary supplements have not been shown to improve memory or prevent impairment.
Just as physical exercise doesn’t guarantee a long or healthy life, brain-health practices aren’t a sure thing. Even the healthiest lifestyles don’t always counter the negative consequences of harmful environments, trauma, social circumstances, genes, and/or misfortune.
The Wellness Command Center
Brain health goes far beyond age-related cognitive decline. In his bestseller, Keep Sharp, neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta advises:
Focus on your brain and everything else follows… With a healthy brain comes not only a healthy body, weight, heart, and so on, but also a stronger sense of confidence, a more solid financial future thanks to smart decisions, better relationships, more love in your life, and heightened overall happiness.
Time to Brainstorm
Brain health connects all components of wellness. It eventually will emerge as a focus of employee well-being. Now’s the time for wellness leaders to determine how existing program offerings and strategies can be leveraged to support brain health and to identify the gaps that need to be filled.
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.