Reorganizing Your Life With a Brain Fitness Goal
Daily activities that can contribute to the maintenance of a healthy brain
- Many studies have demonstrated the destructive consequences of social isolation—and the high value of a regular schedule of social engagement—for sustaining brain health. On the positive side, studies evaluating the bases of successful aging have repeatedly documented the value of continuous social engagement, and have shown the values of re-engagement for more-isolated elders. A good example of the latter class of studies has been provided by Johns Hopkins scientists who developed the “Experience Corps”, which re-engages older individuals in regular community-based activities (e.g, volunteering as a mentor in an elementary school). Many behavioral and neurological changes, for the better, are recorded with this (or many other similar forms of) social re-engagement, in activities that are important and socially rewarding for the participants. See www.experiencecorps.org/research/JHU_summary.html.Note that our need for social interaction commonly grows across our adult lives, even while we often move in a more egocentric personal direction; e.g., see Huxhold B et al (2012) Benefits of having friends in older ages: Differential effects of informal social activities on the well-being in middle aged and older adults. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci doe:10.1090/geronb/gbt029; also see Mendes de Leon (2005) Social engagement and successful aging, Eur J Ageing 2:64 (and the articles that follow this introduction, in a journal volume focusing on these issues).On the negative side, social isolation puts us at high risk for neurobehavioral and physical decline e.g., see Perissinotto CM et al (2012) Loneliness in older persons: a predictor of functional decline and death. Arch Intern Med 172:1078; or Chen B et al (2012) Subjective social status and functional decline in older adults. J Gen Intern Med 27:693. We know that mobility and disability are big factors that can unfairly limit social engagement, e.g., see Rosso AL et al (20130 Mobility, disability, and social engagement in older adults. J Aging Health 25:617. If you fall within this class, you have to work especially hard to overcome the challenges that come from being largely constrained to operate within the walls of your apartment or home. Internet communication, outreach via your phone and computer, social activities lured into your residence, and finding someone (or some group) to help on a regular basis from the confinement of your home may be part of the answer for sustaining your social cognition and overall brain health.
- One of the more crucial aspects of sustaining your plastic powers is the regular exercise of the machinery controlling learning-based plasticity. Humor, amusement, fun, positive good spirits—all express the active exercising and healthy status of this crucial neurological control machinery. In the famous ‘nun studies’ (www.healthstudies.umn.edu/nunstudy/), a sense of humor was found to be a quality shared by successful cognitive survivors that could trump growing neuropathological changes normally associated with Alzheimers. Our “subjective well being” (aka happiness) is a major predictor of our ability to sustain our functional capacities and independence. See, e.g., Sadler ME et al (2011) Subjective wellbeing and longevity: A co-twin control study. Twin Res Hum Genet 14:w49; George LK (2010) Still happy after all these years: Research frontiers on subjective well-being in later life. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci 65:331.
- For an entry to studies documenting the value of physical exercise on brain health, see www.soft-wired/ref/ch27 and www.soft-wired/ref/ch32
- A number of scientists and science writers have written about the benefits of richly engaging in continuous new learning. While they have not generally provided much of a scientific bases for explaining exactly why this could be so important, they DO explain the virtues of a life of continuous new skill acquisition. Two examples from among a hundred or so you could choose from: Katz L, Rubin M (1998) Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness, Workman Books. I chose this citation because Larry Katz was a good scientist who I knew and respected (although this book was quite far removed from the core of his science) and because this was one of the first published books of this class. For a more contemporary version, see Gelb MJ et al (2012) Brain Power: Improve Your Life As You Age, New World Library, an example of the many current books that argue, correctly, that continuous learning in the right forms is a (hardly the only) ‘magic elixir’ in life.
- Mindfulness training has received a growing amount of scientific attention over the past two decades, and many popular self-help books have now been written about its neurological benefits. I suggest you begin educating yourself about this science by reading Begley S (2008) Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Ballantine; or Davidson RJ, Begley S (2012) The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them. Hudson St. Press
- Spatial navigation/memory losses are one common (substantially avoidable) hallmark of growing older. E.g., see Moffat SD et al (2001) Age differences in spatial memory in a virtual environment navigation task. Neurobiol Aging 22:787. For exercising your hippocampus and the machinery that supports its abilities to map and store your spatial constructions of your world, operating in exercises that engage your navigational abilities (in real time as you move across the landscapes in your life, or off-line, as you bring up serial memories constructed in the dimensions of place and time) are a key. For an overview, see Lithfous et al (2012) Spatial navigation in normal aging and the prodromal stage of Alzheimer’s disease: Insights from imaging and behavioral studies. Aging Res Rev 12:201. For impacts of spatial navigation training in older brains, see Lovden M et al (2012) Spatial navigation training protects the hippocampus against age-related changes during early and late adulthood. Neurobiol Aging 33:620; Wenger E, et al (2012) Cortical thickness changes following spatial navigation training in adulthood and aging. Neuroimage 59:3389; among many other possible citations. [Note that these last authors found stronger learning effects in younger vs older adults; but again, we believe that this these differences are substantially attributable to a lack of consideration of the integrity of modulatory control machinery of the brain, which can itself be plastically up-regulated via appropriately targeted exercise, as a necessary part of navigation training.]