Cognitive Conditioning

Brain Curls

Welcome to the FINAL installment (6/6) in my brain health series! This series is inspired by 'The Alzheimer's Solution' by Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherazi. In my first post, I explained that lifestyle choices can prevent up to 90% of Alzheimer's cases.  For the 10% of cases that can't be prevented due to very strong genetic risk (such as in those that carry the APOE4 gene), lifestyle changes can delay presentation or progression of the disease by up to 15 years. There are 5 main lifestyle tenets for optimizing brain health that I covered over the course of this blog series.  They include nutritionexercisestress management, sleep and regularly engaging in complex cognitive activities, which I like to call 'cognitive conditioning'.  When it comes to memory, the old adage 'if you don't use it, you lose it' definitely applies.  But more than maintaining a baseline level of memory, you can actually enhance your brain’s capacity by engaging in activities that promote new neural connections. 

If you don't use it...

There are two types of brain connectivity.  The first is brain reserve, which is generated starting around 42 days of age. The second is cognitive reserve, which is a measure of the connectivity we develop throughout life or in other words, the integrity of our brain. We have no influence over the former at this point, but we do have control over the latter and can do things to expand it, even later in life.  It's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks!

Conditioning my brain by navigating myself around Colombia, practicing my Spanish and learning about the art of Botero.

Conditioning my brain by navigating myself around Colombia, practicing my Spanish and learning about the art of Botero.

Almost all people in mid- and late life have at least some of the brain pathology associated with Alzheimer’s disease, yet only a portion of people experience cognitive decline.  Around age 40 there is a pivotal change in the health of the population.  One group maintains health, one group actually improves and a third group starts a downward spiral. Obviously it’s important to live a healthy life, but the choices you make in your 40’s and 50’s are especially important.  The expression of chronic disease in general (including Alzheimer's) is largely due to the way we live our lives.  Engaging in activities that challenge the brain is an important way to maintain and build cognitive reserve.  When most people think about exercises to challenge the brain, activities like crossword puzzles or Sudoku come to mind.  While these certainly help to some extent, they are linear activities.  It's far more beneficial to engage in complex activities.  Added bonus for complex activities that cause some degree of unpleasantness or that include a component of meaningful social interaction.  Social support and regular engagement with your community have an undeniable positive impact on the way your brain ages.

Cognitive Conditioning Regimen

Want to work out your brain?  Try engaging regularly in some of these activities. 

o  Navigating

o  Learning another language

o  Learning to play an instrument

o  Learning how to dance

o  Taking a class

o  Writing an article or book

o  Computer programming

o  Karaoke and singing

o  Chess or group card games

o  Working in a complex profession that includes problem solving, critical thinking, social interaction, and utilization of memory

o  Mentoring others in your field

o  Arts and crafts

o  Tutoring

What kinds of activities are you regularly engaging in to optimize your brain health?  While no one really wants to hear KARAoke, I regularly write articles, work in a complex profession and make it a point to learn new things. In November I am taking a coding bootcamp class, just cuz. I'm also of the opinion that travel is great for brain health.  You are forced to navigate amidst new surroundings, you learn new things about people, places and culture, it can make you uncomfortable (#growthzone) and usually there is some element of meaningful social interaction.

I hope you've found the brain series helpful and learned something new.  Go find some friends and get your cognitive conditioning on!