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.