Not that long ago, it was thought that brainpower peaked in early midlife and then began an inevitable decline. But we’ve since learned a lot about the plasticity of our brains—and about what we can do to protect our long-term cognitive abilities.
Fortunately for us, there’s plenty we can do to protect our cognitive abilities well beyond our 40th trip around the sun.
Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of brain neurons to continuously change and reorganize to meet the dynamic demands of life. Some of the key players include neurons, which are cells that transmit information to other nerve cells, muscle, or gland cells through electrical impulses.
Small molecules of polypeptides called neutrophins boost neural regeneration. Specifically, brain derived neutrophic factor enhances the creation of new neurons (this is called neurogenesis). Some research suggests that neurodegenerative disorders may be the result of changes in neurotrophic factors and receptors.
Dendrites are branchlike structures that transmit signals along the neurons, and the synapse is the junction between brain cells. When born, each infant neuron has about 2,500 synapses. By age three, through the process of synaptogenesis, this number grows to about 15,000 as a toddler starts to acquire new skills and knowledge.
By adulthood, synaptic pruning has reduced this number by about half. As we age, this can become a problem that leads to misplaced car keys on a busy day, or potential cognitive decline over time.
According to the reserve hypothesis, cognitive impairments begin when we’ve depleted our pool of structural and cognitive resources. The hypothesis arose from the observation that people with larger brain weights are less likely to have dementia and that people who challenge themselves intellectually have less atrophy of the hippocampus. (The hippocampus helps consolidate information and supports spatial memory.)
In other words, the denser your brain, the better off you are! Here are some simple strategies to build a better—denser—brain.
Mental lapses often occur because we don’t pay attention when doing repetitive activities. To become more mindful of the present moment, shake up your routine. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Take a different route to work.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation is also associated with structural and functional changes in the brain, possibly due to neurogenesis, dendritic branching, and synaptogenesis. It’s also possible that changes result from a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol after meditation. Cortisol has been associated with memory impairments.
Play mind games
Participating in brain-stimulating activities encourages the development of new dendritic branches and synapses, enhances the brain’s capillary network, and increases neurogenesis.
To keep your brain weighty, learn a new musical instrument, acquire a language that will allow you to travel to a new destination, or join an online video game competition. Research shows that challenging video games may strengthen white matter connectivity, which may improve communication between cortices of the brain.
Offline socializing is also brain protective.
Exercise appears to protect both the structure and the function of the brain, with studies showing an association between higher cardiovascular fitness and reduced decline in brain tissue in older adults. Preclinical studies also suggest that physical activity increases adult neurogenesis.
In studies, exercise consistently proves to be beneficial for brain health at all intensity levels, possibly by optimizing brain derived neutrophic factor. Aerobic exercise improves attention, processing speed, and memory, and regular exercise is associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and all-cause dementia.
No matter what your age, physical activity improves brain function, learning, and memory.
Feed your brain
Of course, food affects brain function. Diets high in sugar promote inflammation, which is associated with cognitive decline as well as mood and neurogenerative disorders.
Similarly, high-fat diets contribute to increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive impairment.
Instead, fill your plate with fruits and vegetables and enjoy culinary herbs and teas. These polyphenol-rich plant foods may reduce risk of neurodegenerative disease and age-related cognitive decline, possibly by promoting synaptic plasticity.
Sources of polyphenols with neuroprotective, neurogenic, and anti-inflammatory properties include curcumin, green tea, and resveratrol.
That smells familiar!
The olfactory senses are the strongest memory trigger. To lock in new information, diffuse some essential oils while you learn. Sniffing the fragrance later may help prompt recall.
Tip: Dab some of the oil on a cotton cloth!
B is for brain
B12 protects the myelin sheath around the nerve cells, and antioxidant B6 protects neurons. Deficiency of B9 (folic acid) is linked to mental disorders.
Tip: Supplement daily with B complex and choline to get all the B benefits!
If supplementing, look for bioavailable forms of curcumin and resveratrol. Be sure to include omega-3 fatty acids from fish and fish oil, which help build brain cell membranes.