The brain, we are told, is not unlike a muscle. Use it or lose it. The disproven notion that there’s little one can do to offset the age-related decline of mental prowess has been supplanted with many claims for how to keep your gray matter in top shape. But the claims and facts don’t always mesh.
Amid the flurry of assertions about how to boost brain performance, in 2010 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted an evaluation of the applicable research, hoping to distill fact from fiction. What they determined is that there is little evidence supporting such things such as eating blueberries, increasing one’s omega-3 intake, or some of the brain training websites that are flooding the commercial market.
And, of course, there were some brain-boosting approaches that had some science to back them up, but not enough to earn the NIH seal of approval, so to speak. For example, many assert that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline, and that is true. However, it’s not clear whether it is the diet itself (olive oil, fish, vegetables, wine) or what it excludes (refined sugar, red meat, high-fat diary) that has the protective effect.
Also, you’ve probably heard that crossword puzzles and other simple brain games can boost cognitive performance, and they can. However, so far, the research suggests that this kind of cognitive training only improves performance on the task at hand (such as crossword puzzles), and does not generalize to other mental activities.
So what does work? Here are the three primary behaviors that have been shown to promote neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons), as well as to boost learning, memory, reasoning and creativity across a broad range of mental tasks:
1. Aerobic Exercise: As little as 45 minutes of brisk walking three times a week, for instance, promotes neurogenesis and the growth of new neural networks. One scientific finding is that a year of exercise can provide a 70-year old with the same brain capacity as a 30-year old with respect to memory, planning, multitasking and critical thinking.
2. Meditation: Long touted as a way to exercise the brain, meditation has been show to promote neurogenesis, improve concentration, enhance processing of sensory information, and offset IT-induced attention deficit disorder. How? Neuroscientists know that a meditator’s use of “focused attention,” a hallmark of the meditative process, enlarges and optimizes brain circuitry. This is also seen when someone learns an entirely new cognitive skill, such as a second language, a new musical instrument, etc.
3. Certain Videogames: Parents may not like this, but some videogames improve mental abilities such as motor control, visual search, working and long-term memory, and decision-making, particularly in older adults. What’s more, like meditation, videogames invoke the “holy grail” of brain boosting — attention. Certain games are better than others, particularly more complex ones requiring strategic planning.
Bottom Line: If you want to enhance your cognitive skills, then exercise your body, meditate and play certain videogames. And for a still bigger boost, learn a new and challenging mental skill, like a foreign language. Your brain will love you for it.