The Journal on Active Aging
Continued on page 42
Debunking 10 commonmyths
The extensive research process weundertook for our recent book,
The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness,
high-lighted the need to debunk some popularmyths on brain health thatmay hinderefforts in the right direction. Theseinclude:
Myth 1. Genes determine the fate of our brains.
Facts: Lifelong neuroplasticity allows ourlifestyles and actions to play a meaningfulrole in how our brains physically evolve,especially given longer life expectancy.
Myth 2. Aging means automatic decline.
Facts: There is nothing inherently fixedin the precise trajectory of how brainfunctions evolve as we age.
Myth 3. Medication is the main hope for cognitive enhancement.
Facts: Noninvasive interventions canhave comparable and more durableeffects, side effect-free.
Myth 4. We will soon have a magic pill or general solution to solve all our cognitive challenges.
Facts: A multipronged approach is rec-ommended, centered around nutrition,stress management, and both physicaland mental exercise.
Myth 5. There is only one “it” in “Use it or lose it.”
Facts: The brain is composed of a num-ber of specialized units. Our life andproductivity depend on a variety of brain functions, not just one.
Myth 6. All brain activities or exercises are equal.
Facts: Varied and targeted exercises arethe necessary ingredients in brain train-ing, so that a wide range of brain func-tions can be stimulated.
Myth 7. There is only one way to train your brain.
Facts: Brain functions can be impacted ina number of ways, such as meditation,cognitive therapy and cognitive training.
Myth 8. We all have something called “brain age.”
There are four types of mental exercise with more supporting scientific evidencethat they can enhance specific brainfunctions.
Cognitive therapy (CT).
The way weperceive our experiences influences ourbehaviors, and we can learn cognitiveskills to modify our thinking, resultingin actions. CT is commonly used inthe context of anxiety and depression,but its core principles and techniquesshow promise in a variety of otherapplications such as healthy eating.•
This practice has beenshown to improve specific cognitivefunctions such as attention and emo-tional self-regulation.Facts: Brain age is a fiction. No two indi-viduals have the same brain or expressionof brain functions.
Myth 9. That “brain age” can be reversed by 10, 20, 30 years.
Facts: Brain training can improve specificbrain functions, but, with research avail-able today, cannot be said to roll back one’s “brain age” by a number of years.
Myth 10. All human brains need the same brain training.
Facts: As in physical fitness, users mustask themselves: What functions do I needto improve on? In what timeframe? Whatis my budget? With these facts in mind, let’s delve intodifferent types of mental exercise andhow they benefit the brain.
Exercise requires cross-training and challenge
The most common enemies of novelty,variety and challenge are routine anddoing things inside our comfort zones.This is true for both physical and mentalexercise.Consider the type of mental exerciseexperienced daily by London cab drivers.Every new ride requires a complex men-tal task to decide the most efficient routeto complete the continually novel chal-lenge at hand. Contrast that with theroutine mental activity (we couldn’t really call it “mental exercise”) undertaken by London bus drivers who, day after day,follow a precise itinerary. Clearly, if youlived in London and wanted to protectand even grow your hippocampus, you would choose to drive a cab, not a bus.Of course, the brain has a variety of structures and functions to maintain, well beyond the hippocampus, hence theneed for cross-training. Not all mentalexercise is equal in terms of its structuraland functioning benefits—in the same way that different types of physical fit-ness training bring different benefits.Mental exercise strengthens the synapsesor connections between neurons (nervecells), thus improving neuron survivaland cognitive functioning. Rememberthat “cells that fire together wiretogether.”
The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: 18 Interviews with Scientists,Practical Advice, and Product Reviews,to Keep Your Brain Sharp
Authors: Álvaro Fernández andElkhonon Goldberg, PhDSan Francisco CA: SharpBrains Inc.,May 2009Paperback, 182 pages, $24.95
The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness
is the result of over a year of extensive research including morethan 100 interviews with scientists,professionals and consumers, and adeep literature review. Among theleading scientists interviewed, ArthurKramer explains the need for walkingbook clubs and Yaakov Stern discussesbuilding cognitive reserve. There is anaccessible introduction to the brainand brain fitness research combined with over 100 references to peer-reviewed scientific studies for deeperstudy. The resource also reviews 21products for brain cross-training, tar-geted mental exercise, and emotionalself-regulation.