Although it’s generally believed that Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski coined the term “plasticity” in 1948 to describe the brain’s ability to experience permanent functional transformations, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the scientific community began accepting the implications of “neuroplasticity.”
The idea of the brain being able to change and adapt has always seemed like good news for an aging population looking for ways to keep their brains in tip-top shape. Perhaps it’s the hope that it creates for a cure for Alzheimer’s or age-related cognitive decline. Or maybe it’s because the concept of neuroplasticity gives humans a sense of control; that what we do or don’t do affects our future health.
Regardless of the reason for our invested interest in neuroplasticity, there are some ways to harness its attributes.
- Exercise regularly. There’s mounting evidence that physical fitness is one of the best gifts you can give your brain. Even light to moderate aerobic exercise improves oxygen consumption. Plus, aerobic exercise has been found to reduce cell loss in the elderly. If you’re obese, even losing a few pounds can improve your thinking skills.
- Feed your brain. Proper nutrition isn’t just for your waistline. Unhealthy foods can create “brain fog,” while healthy foods—like salmon, sardines, nuts, avocados, and blueberries—can help keep your brain sharp.
Like many body organs, the brain operates best when blood glucose is stable. Lack of concentration and other mental lapses can readily occur when blood glucose levels dip or surge. Ways to keep glucose stable include:
- Eating complex carbohydrates instead of simple sugars
- Balancing carbohydrates by eating them with small amounts of protein, beneficial fats, and fiber
- Snacking throughout the day instead of consuming giant meals
- Eating breakfast
- Get quality sleep. While lack of sleep is an obvious detriment to attention and memory skills, poor sleep quality—caused by issues like sleep apnea—can cause more long-lasting cognitive problems.
The brain accomplishes a long list of tasks while you sleep, including clearing out toxic molecules that build up during waking hours, transporting short-term memories to long-term, and even making creative connections.
And while caffeine can provide a cognitive boost, no amount can rival the work your brain does while you sleep.
- Enroll in personal brain training. Unlike digital brain games, one-on-one brain training uses customized exercises and incorporates immediate feedback, intensity, and loading, among other features, to target brain skills. And while tutoring is academics-based, personal brain training is skills-based. Tutoring does have its place: It can be effective when a student has fallen behind in specific subjects (such as history) due to an illness, injury, or family move. But cognitive skills training targets the underlying skills—including attention, auditory processing, memory, logic & reasoning, processing speed, and visual processing—needed to perform tasks (like reading),. When these skills are strong, it can help make learning easier in any subject.
- Get social. There’s mounting evidence that social interaction is good for maintaining the brain into our later years.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, research shows that regular engagement in social activities helps maintain brain vitality. Social activities include emotional support, work, volunteering, travel, and participation in clubs.
A 2001 study* analyzing the impact of professionally conducted cultural programs on adults over 65 found that opportunities to participate and attend ongoing cultural activities (singing, painting, and poetry reading, for example) had healthy and encouraging benefits, including:
* better overall health
* fewer visits to their physician
* rate of need for medication decreased
* fewer falls
* vision problems diminished
* a significant decrease on the Geriatric Depression Scale.
The general consensus? Maintain your friends, relationships, and activities and you’ll maintain your brain health.
- Learn something new. Forget the “old dog, new trick” adage. Studies show that even in our senior years, learning a new language, skill, or hobby can help keep our brains active.
Your best bet may be a combination of the above. Thanks to our understanding of neuroplasticity, you may have more control over your brain’s health than you think!