Much like exercise benefits the muscles of the body, the brain benefits from being cognitively challenged. Healthy brain cells need an adequate supply of blood, which carries nutrients and oxygen, to remain healthy and functioning. Technological advances in brain diagnostics show us that when our brain is engaging in cognitive activity, blood flow is stimulated in the areas of the brain involved in the effort.
Cognitive “exercise” also causes brain cells to create new connections to other brain cells. Each active brain cells has the capacity to sprout up to 30,000 branches, making an active cell part of a larger network of cells. Additionally, mental exertion promotes the creation of new brain cells that function in the area where they are needed.
While simply exerting your brain can’t prevent Alzheimer’s indefinitely, studies suggest that it can modify and reduce its effects. An example of this is found in a recent US study that showed higher levels of education help protect the brain from damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, researchers examined autopsies of 130 deceased people with Alzheimer’s. The brain scans revealed that in patients with similar levels of disease progression, the patients with less formal education had more cognitive decline and the patients with more formal education had fewer cognitive problems.
Brain training holds promise because it is non-invasive and without many of the unpleasant side effects present in certain treatments. Currently, patients treated with Alzheimer’s drugs face a diminishing return in drug efficacy along with serious potential side effects.
So how do we “exercise” our brains in order to increase blood flow and expansion of new cell connections? As long as we push our brain to solve new problems and explore new cognitive challenges, we can improve brain fitness. The brain’s natural tendency to learn from experiences and create patterns from prior experiences can reduce mental effort in subsequent problems. In this regard, our brains are fundamentally lazy.
Ideally, a brain fitness program presents challenges for a range of cognitive functions. A continuous assessment of performance, along with new levels of challenge and reward would likely engage people on an ongoing basis.