The Significance

Throughout our lives, our brains are changing; new neurons (or nerve cells, these use electrical impulses and chemical signals to act as messengers between different regions in our brain and between our brain and body) and synapses (connections between neurons that allow for the sending of information) continue to develop as we age, accumulate new experiences and accrue more knowledge into our mental piggy-bank. Actions we take can affect the development of synapses and lead to cognitive enhancement. According to a report by the Global Council on Brain Health, continuing to actively develop our cognition through diverse and engaging activities can improve a range of brain functions.

The Evidence

The National Institute on Aging, a leader in healthy-aging research, states that diverse lifestyle changes focused on enhancing cognitive development, may improve memory, concentration, information processing, and motor function.

In a recent report from the World Health Organization, an estimated 55 million people are currently living with dementia. In addition, the WHO also predicts that this number will rise to 78 million by 2030 and 139 million by 2050. While research is still underway to determine if focus on cognitive enhancement can prevent dementia later in life, performing stimulating and diverse activities with consistency during our lifetime has been shown to delay the onset of dementia by five years. Cognitive enhancement may even reduce symptoms associated with other neurodegenerative brain disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease.

One of the most well studied activities that enhance our cognition is physical exercise. Physical exercise stimulates the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a hormone that supports neuronal health and vitality and stimulates formation of synapses between neurons (the basis of memory). Regular exercise leads to epigenetic changes in the genes that code for the manufacture of BDNF, so that more BDNF is produced over time. These epigenetic changes can last a lifetime if exercise is and ongoing part of your life and lead to a healthier brain into older age.

Physical exercise also stimulates the release of neurotransmitters that are involved in regulating mood and attention. Increased levels of norepinephrine and dopamine may be responsible for enhanced concentration and learning observed in the hours immediately after exercise. Increased levels of serotonin, endorphins and anandamide may be responsible for enhanced mood and reduce anxiety observed after exercise. Many students and professionals have learned to position exercise before periods of cognitive demand to optimize their performance and may sprinkle additional brief walks or calisthenics throughout their day to maintain performance.

Many studies have documented the impact of aerobic exercise on brain health and performance. A growing line of evidence suggests that strength training has benefits for mental health and cognitive function as well that may be somewhat unique, and perhaps complimentary, to the effects of aerobic exercise. There may be additional social and cognitive benefits from team sports and group activities or participating in an event such as a race.

The Recommendations

Implementing lifestyle changes can help to develop many aspects of our cognition. Engaging in consistent and diverse stimulation is a powerful tool in developing our brain function. As our brains continue to mature during our lifetime, these techniques may help to positively enhance our performance:

  • Aerobic activity can benefit our health in many ways, but consistent aerobic exercise can improve brain processing and play a key role in reducing neurodegeneration. Performing moderate to vigorous physical activity has been shown to not only improve brain processing but also memory, executive functioning, and subsequent academic performance.
  • Meditation and mindfulness practices can improve attention, memory, speech, cognitive flexibility, and potentially increase cognitive capacity.
  • Cognitive training programs can have a positive effect on our brain health, and may increase in benefit when paired with exercise.
  • A Mediterranean inspired diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits and healthy fats, with relatively few meats and refined sugars can reduce risk for depression or dementia and improve cognitive functioning and retention of cognitive functions in older healthy adults.
  • Social relationships and engagement can have a positive effect on mood and health by buffering stress response and improve aptitude for learning.

Cognitively stimulating leisure activities, such as word games, puzzles, gardening or writing calligraphy, can produce similar results to cognitive training programs and have a significant effect on the delay and reduction of cognitive decline.

The Takeaway

As much as the saying, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is a myth, so too is the idea that our own cognitive enhancement simply plateaus once we reach a certain age. If we keep our furry friends engaged, and introduce new stimuli continuously, their knowledge can flourish. By implementing lifestyle changes that expose ourselves to a variety of cognitively stimulating activities and ideas as well as regular physical activity, our neural network will respond with new connections and increased function. Through collaboration, a healthcare professional can work with individuals to determine physical and mental activities that complement areas of their cognitive function they may want to enhance.