Not that long ago, the medical community believed that brain power peaked in early midlife … and then inevitably declined. But since the last century, we’ve learned a great deal about the plasticity of our brains. That’s good news for all of us.
“Neuroplasticity” refers to the ability of brain neurons to continuously change and reorganize to meet the dynamic demands of life. In other words, our brains can remodel themselves—and we might be able to harness that power using simple strategies, ultimately protecting our cognitive abilities.
The brain over time
When we’re born, each of our infant neurons has about 2,500 synapses. By age three, through the process of synaptogenesis, this number grows to about 15,000 as we start to acquire new skills and knowledge.
By adulthood, synaptic pruning has reduced this number by about half. As we age, this can become a problem that leads to misplaced car keys on a busy day, or potential cognitive decline over time.
According to the reserve hypothesis, cognitive impairments begin when we’ve depleted our pool of structural and cognitive resources. The hypothesis arose from the observation that people with greater brain weights are less likely to have dementia, and that people who challenge themselves intellectually have less atrophy of the hippocampus. (The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped region of the brain that helps consolidate information and supports spatial memory.)
In other words, the denser your brain, the better off you are.
Boost your brain
Read on for some simple strategies that could help build a better—and maybe even denser—brain.
To become more mindful of the present moment, shake up your routine. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Take a different route to work.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation is also associated with positive structural and functional changes in the brain.
Play mind games
Try these activities.
- Learn a new musical instrument.
- Acquire a language that will allow you to travel to a new destination.
- Join an online video game competition.
- Socialize with friends.
Exercise appears to protect both the structure and the function of the brain, with studies showing an association between higher cardiovascular fitness and reduced decline in brain tissue in older adults. No matter your age, physical activity improves brain function, learning and memory.
Feed your brain
Of course, food affects brain function. Diets high in sugar promote inflammation, which is associated with cognitive decline, as well as mood and neurodegenerative disorders.
Similarly, high-fat diets contribute to increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive impairment.
Instead, fill your plate with fruits and vegetables and enjoy culinary herbs and teas, which may reduce risk of age-related cognitive decline.
Sources of polyphenols useful for brain health maintenance include curcumin, green tea and resveratrol. If supplementing, look for bioavailable forms of curcumin and resveratrol. Be sure to also include omega-3 fatty acids, which help build brain cell membranes.