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Matching our cognitive brain span to our extended lifespan

By Dr. Sandra B. Chapman

Among adults over 50, “staying mentally sharp” out ranks social security and physical health as the top priority and concern in the United States. Many individuals will live to be 100 or older, requiring their brains to remain at peak performance for another whole lifetime. Unfortunately, science shows cognitive decline begins at age 42. Our research quest at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas was to determine if high performance brain training can repair age-related decline — both cognitively and physiologically — in healthy adults. In essence, we were asking: How can we extend the brain span to more closely match the extensive gains in the human lifespan?

Until recently, cognitive losses in healthy adults were viewed as an inevitable consequence of living longer. However, researchers around the world are discovering ways to reinvigorate overall brain health and reverse cognitive losses, giving specific focus to abilities that support independent living such as the capacity to reason, problem solve, and plan. Throughout our lifetime our brain remains highly malleable, an asset referred to as neuroplasticity.

Our most recent findings harness this inherent brain trait by using a specific approach to brain training that involves nine thinking strategies. We found that the brain training strategies not only improved cognitive performance, but also induced beneficial physiological brain changes. These published findings show healthy adults can regain lost cognitive performance, improve blood flow in the brain, speed up communication between brain regions, and expand structural connections after brief training.

How? By fully engaging the brain in deep thought and pushing the limits of innovation. The truth is that our brain changes and adapts moment-to-moment depending on how we use it. Thus, it is important to know what habits enhance brain performance and which ones are detrimental to healthy brain performance. Putting healthy thinking strategies into practice and stopping toxic habits will help to add years to cognitive brain performance to more closely match the increased life expectancy.

Human brain function grunge with gears

These tips were part of the brain training program used in our research study, and were shown to improve brain health:

Brainpower of None
Our brain solves complex problems when we step away to reflect on ideas and crucial decisions rather than acting without weighing choices. A halt in constant thinking slows the mind’s rhythms to allow more innovative ‘aha moments.’ Schedule periods of brain downtime — even if just for five minutes, five times a day — to quiet your mind.

Brainpower of One
Our brain was not wired to multitask, and doing so diminishes mental productivity, increases stress, impairs sleep patterns and reduces overall health by altering the immune system. Avoiding multitasking increases brain efficiency and energy. Focusing on a core task for a minimum of fifteen minutes at a time without interruptions betters the brain’s strategic attention capacity and ability to inhibit information. Our world’s unending cognitively demanding tasks rely on the brain’s central executive network (CEN). This CEN is a complex, large-scale brain network that serves our ability to keep a goal in mind, figure out the necessary steps to achieve that goal, update actions, and make rapid or slow decisions as needed to best achieve the goal. Multitasking constantly disrupts the CEN circuit, almost like disconnecting a computer and having to constantly reboot it. So instead of multitasking, focus deeply without distraction.

Brainpower of Two
When making to-do lists, focus the greatest amount of time and effort on the two goals/tasks that are pivotal to success, that will have the most impact, and require the most careful deliberation and strategic, deeper thinking. Giving the most important tasks your brain’s prime time enhances cognitive performance.

What this research shows is that practical steps can be taken to maintain the function of our brain and prompt our own cognitive improvements throughout life; ultimately, advancing age does not always predict cognitive deterioration. Even when we possess genetic risk factors, how our brains evolve over time can be controlled to a large extent by our actions, similar to what has been shown for cardiac risk factors. Just as we cannot ignore our body’s health until late life, we have to attend to our brain’s health early, often, and consistently.

If we do not tend to our brains every single day, the expanse between our lifespan and brain health span will grow wider — an overall gap that becomes increasingly more difficult to close. Like passengers riding London’s underground tunnel system are reminded to mind the gap between the train and the platform, you too want to heed this warning in terms of your brain and its performance. Leveraging the growing body of neuroscience evidence, we can regain cognitive losses and enhance our brain at any age.

Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., Founder and Chief Director of the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, Dee Wyly Distinguished University Chair and author of Make Your Brain Smarter, is committed to maximizing cognitive potential across the entire lifespan. She is the lead author on “Neural Mechanisms of Brain Plasticity with Complex Cognitive Training in Healthy Seniors” in Cerebral Cortex (available to read for free for a limited time). As a cognitive neuroscientist with more than 40 funded research grants, Dr. Chapman’s scientific study elucidates and applies novel approaches to advance creative and critical thinking, strengthen healthy brain development, and incite innovation throughout life.

Cerebral Cortex publishes papers on the development, organization, plasticity, and function of the cerebral cortex, including the hippocampus. Studies with clear relevance to the cerebral cortex, such as the thalamocortical relationship or cortico-subcortical interactions, are also included.

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