4 ways to exercise your brain as you age

4 ways to exercise your brain as you age

The human brain is still a mystery, but there is one thing scientists are certain of. That is to say, this complicated organ can still function well with age. And there are ways to improve and shape brain agility and function.

Brain shrinks with age, but cranial nerve activation is greater

Have you noticed that people of the same age have different memory abilities?

Besides memories, a person’s ability to think, reason, communicate, and problem solve is also related to cognition. Cognitive ability does not necessarily decline with age.

A healthy human brain contains tens of billions of specialized neural cells that process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. [1]

Unlike many cells in the body that are relatively short-lived, neurons can last a long time through self-maintenance and repair. During this process, neurons continually adjust or remodel their synaptic connections, the connections through which neurons communicate with other neurons and receive stimuli. Even adult brains can generate new neurons (neurogenesis).

Remodeling of synaptic connections and neurogenesis is important for memory, learning, and eventually brain repair.

A healthy brain shrinks to some extent during the aging process, but it does not lose large numbers of neurons. However, in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, their neurons are mostly damaged and eventually stop functioning, thus experiencing cognitive decline.

Pei-Ning Wang, professor of neurology at Yangming University and director of the Dementia Treatment and Research Center at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan, pointed out a myth about the brain: no more brain is bigger, the better the memory and cognition. He said neural activity and neural connections are more important than brain size.

As we age, the brain also undergoes normal aging.

The human brain shrinks every year after our 30s and 40s, and it shrinks at a rate of about 5% every decade after 40. Between the ages of 60 and 70, its rate of shrinkage will increase further. [2][3]

Pei-Ning Wang explained that the normal reduction in brain volume has no correlation with human intelligence. What determines cognitive ability is whether neurons are active and whether the connections between neurons are good.

A brain could have a large number of neurons, but if the neurons rarely work and are not well connected to each other, memory and brain agility would not be good. On the contrary, when brain neurons are very active and well connected, the brain can still function well despite its age.

Also, the brain shrinks faster if neural activity is low and neural connections deteriorate, like a 40-year-old woman with 70-year-old wrinkles on her face.

Factors that cause the brain to degenerate faster

Accelerated brain aging can be caused by certain diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. Poor blood circulation can lead to vascular sclerosis and inflammation of the brain, and in turn damage the cerebrovascular system. Smoking and drinking can also cause chronic disease and damage the brain.

Depression, a common mental disorder, can also accelerate brain degeneration if left untreated.

Car crashes, boxing, football, and other sports that cause head injuries can damage nerve cells in the brain and loosen neural connections.

Not using the brain regularly, leading a sedentary lifestyle, and doing little physical activity can reduce brain function. Doing little exercise will affect blood circulation and blood oxygenation, which impairs neuronal regeneration. Pei-Ning Wang said exercise itself can stimulate nerve growth hormone secretion and increase the speed and amount of nerve regeneration.

Unhealthy habits can also affect brain health.

“One of the worst (brain-damaging) habits is watching TV,” said Joan Zeng, a researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

According to three studies in 2021, moderate to high amounts of television viewing in midlife are associated with smaller gray matter volume later in life. Gray matter contains most of the neuronal cell bodies. [4]

After years of tracking, researchers found that middle-aged adults who watched TV moderately or regularly had a 6.9% decline in cognitive function over 15 years, compared to those who never watched. or rarely television.

Ryan Dougherty, a postdoctoral researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who led the study, noted that an average increase in television viewing time of one hour was linked to a decrease in gray matter volume. by about 0.5%.

Although these studies concluded that regular television viewing was not significantly associated with a higher risk of dementia, they also found that exercise did not appear to modify the negative effects of regular television viewing. on the cognitive function of the brain.

Why is watching TV so bad for the brain? There are two reasons: watching TV makes people sedentary, and the brain doesn’t need to think too much. Even if you have healthy habits and don’t smoke or drink alcohol, your brain will gradually get worse while watching TV.

Joan Zeng said that when people watch television, their brains are passively fed messages. Older people should turn off the television and go out to chat with others. This is one of the easiest ways to maintain brain health.

Brain plasticity can occur at any age

If you watch TV frequently, is it too late to take care of your brain?

“In fact, the brain is adaptable regardless of age,” Pei-Ning Wang said. The brain has great plasticity compared to other organs. Whether it’s a brain injury or a stroke, brain function can improve through rehabilitation.

The brain is constantly adjusting during learning. from birth and throughout his life. In adulthood, the brain continues to make adjustments and connections based on our everyday experiences and through the things we see, hear, and learn.

The hippocampus, located deep in the temporal lobe, plays an important role in learning and the retention of short-term memory. It is also an area where cranial nerve regeneration is relatively active.

A study found that the hippocampus of London taxi drivers is relatively large. In order to obtain a London cab driver’s licence, students spend 3-4 years learning the complex streets of London ― over 60,000 streets, including one-way lanes and turning restrictions, and over 100 000 important places and monuments. Reinforcement learning resulted in more neural regeneration and connection in their hippocampus. [5]

Pei-Ning Wang pointed out that taxi drivers in London have to use their brains to memorize these routes every day, which is more useful for activating the brain than listening to navigation instructions.

The research result is encouraging – even in adulthood, we can still stimulate the brain by learning things to achieve positive changes in the brain. And there are things we can do to promote neural regeneration and connection.

1. Aerobic exercises

Aerobic exercise such as jogging, brisk walking, swimming, and dancing can increase hippocampus and brain volume.

A study on the effects of aerobic exercise on brain volume in older adults found that cardiovascular exercise helped prevent brain tissue degeneration. Researchers believe that aerobic exercise can promote the growth of new capillaries in the brain, increase the connections and number of neurons, and delay neurological decline in older people. [6]

Pei-Ning Wang recommended dancing because it is a combination of mental and physical activities, where you have to memorize the dance steps and learn the moves at the same time.

2. Static activities that involve thinking

Although static activities, such as solving sudoku, reading, and playing chess, do not require physical movement, they are better than watching television. These types of static brain activities help maintain cognitive function and reduce the risk of dementia. [7]

3. Alternate between dynamic and static activities

Housework, gardening, and travel all require mental and physical strength. Take the example of travel. Both body and mind are involved in planning a trip, selecting trip activities, organizing trip information and carrying out the trip.

4. Develop general interests

Joan Zeng said different areas of the brain can be stimulated and fully activated, the same way a balanced diet provides various nutrients. Therefore, in addition to cleaning, exercising, and reading, you can also listen to music, sing, and enjoy performing arts. The whole brain is active when watching a performance that includes music, singing, dancing, and acting.

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Camille Su is a health journalist covering diseases, nutrition and investigative topics. Do you have any advice? kuanmi.su@epochtimes.com

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