Scientific studies about the brain are rapidly changing our understanding about how to maintain the brain’s function as we age. It’s becoming increasingly clear that just as the key to our long-term physical health lies in the daily choices we make around diet, exercise and sleep; our choices can also impact our brain’s health as we age. It’s exciting to know that some of the same actions that can keep our brain functioning as we age can also reduce the debilitating impact of Alzheimer’s.
To understand the science around brain fitness, it’s helpful to use an analogy between brain cells and other cells in the body. We now know that to maintain good physical health, it’s important to exert physical effort to expand the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the muscle’s cells in our body. Healthy brain cells also need a good supply of blood, which carries essential nutrients and oxygen, to help them remain healthy and functioning. Advances in medical diagnostic equipment over the last few decades show us that when our brain is involved in cognitive effort, blood flow is increased to those parts of the brain involved in the effort.
Cognitive effort also triggers brain cells to create more new connections to other brain cells. Each active brain cell can sprout up to 30,000 branches, making an active brain cell the hub of an interconnected network of cells. In addition, mental effort stimulates the generation of new brain cells that migrate to the area where cells are needed and “learn” from the surrounding cells to perform the functions necessary.
The idea that an active and challenged brain may have many more brain cells that can learn and help to “pitch in” to perform a function is one of the most exciting things about brain fitness and its relation to slowing down the effects of Alzheimer’s.
While brain fitness and mental effort can’t prevent the disease, studies suggest that it can modify and reduce the effect of Alzheimer’s. For example, a recent US study indicates that higher levels of education help protect the brain from the damage caused by Alzheimer's disease. In the study, autopsies on the brains of 130 deceased people with Alzheimer’s showed that the impact that the disease had on cognitive performance was related to how much formal education the patient had completed. In people whose brains showed a similar level of disease progression, researchers noted fewer cognitive problems in those with many years of education and more cognitive decline in those with less education. Another study conducted in France shows that lower education levels carry a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, and there are even suggestions that more intellectually-challenging careers may reduce the impact of the disease.