Have you ever wondered about proven ways to boost your brain power? Are you like me, stunned at the mental capacity some elderly people display?
The most enduring memory of my grandmother was of her lying in bed doing crosswords. With her typical determination – “sass” was her middle name – she’d always finish them, right to filling out the last few squares. Admittedly, she did use crossword reference books but that doesn’t take away from the sharpness of her mind, clearly displayed in every turn of phrase.
She also loved playing solo French card games during the day, whenever her back wouldn’t allow her to keep digging and planting in the garden. Yes, she had a terrible back, overworked and irreparably damaged from bearing 7 children and taking over her husband’s roofing business in her fifties after he had died suddenly of heart failure. After a couple of years, she sold the roofing business and turned the workshop into a guest house. Brave lady, a little rough around the edges – actually I was a little scared of her when I was very young – but she had a wicked sense of humour and was, no doubt, a classic superwoman.
She died in her mid-eighties at the height of her power without having to suffer a long illness, her mind as sharp as ever.
If I look at her daughter – my mother, now also approaching 80 – I am inspired by the sharp mind and youthful quick thinking. No, my Mom doesn’t play French card games, nor does she do crosswords in the middle of the night. She reads – ferociously. Regardless of the topic, be it politics, art, religion, history or local news, she devours the information.
Unsurprisingly, she relishes the time she spends lying on the sofa reading. What do they have in common, my Mom and my Grandma? They never stopped learning nor using their brain. This incidentally brings me to the topic of this article. With all the talk of fitness and exercise, healthy eating and living, I began asking myself whether we should concern ourselves with mental fitness too.
Hence, I took the time to talk to elderly people and read up on the scientific studies in this area. Dementia is a major health issue, so scientist across the globe have been researching ways to boost your brain power, maintain memory, and counter the age-related deterioration of the brain. In this process, they have come up with proven ways to boost your brain power. But let’s begin by looking at brain development, from conception to full development.
Basic Brain Development – From Conception to Adulthood
Like so many first-time moms, I read every pregnancy book under the sun after getting that much-longed-for positive pregnancy test. When I discovered that the brain and spinal cord systems are among the first to develop, I was even keener on having a healthy pregnancy. So, this is what happens in the womb, beautifully described in great detail on the What to Expect website and the wonderful book with the same title.
Brain Development Before Birth
Brain development begins in early pregnancy, with the baby’s neural plate forming and growing. This is the foundation of your baby’s spinal cord and brain. Over time, the neural plate grows longer and develops into the neural tube. At 6 and 7 weeks, this tube closes and the three sections of the brain – forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain – become visible. The part sitting behind the hindbrain goes on to become the spinal cord. A short time later, the five well-known parts of the brain including the brain stem, cerebrum, cerebellum, pituitary gland, and hypothalamus form. During that time, neural cells come into play, kick-starting the growth of your baby’s nervous system. Neurons can already communicate with each other, creating movement and a sense of touch.
During the second trimester, the messaging system between your baby’s nerve cells becomes faster, while the brain stem reaches almost complete maturity. Toward the end of this trimester, the baby’s brain shows brainwave activity including sleep cycles.
The last trimester is dominated by rapid brain development, with the baby’s brain tripling in weight. The surface of the brain begins to show the well-known grooves. During this stage of pregnancy, the motor control center of the brain, the cerebellum, grows at the fastest rate. This is crucial for the cerebral cortex, the feeling, thinking, and remembering part of the brain. After birth, the brain begins to function fully, journeying into a period of crucial brain development during the first few years of childhood.
Brain Development Between Birth and the Age of 6
Most parents will invariably turn to books and scientific findings to find out how to help their child to develop. This desire led me to research early childhood brain development. During my search, I came across the milestone checklist. Organizations like the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) outline what milestones a child should reach between birth and the age of 6.
Using these milestones, parents and childcare professional can detect developmental issues and take adequate action. I was interested in finding out how the brain develops and how to optimize my child’s growth. A comprehensive search brought me to a summary published by Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. This summary explains how the brain develops, which aspects promote or prevent the healthy development of a child’s brain.
Neuroscientific and behavioral research has led experts to identify the following aspects as central to learning and brain development:
The architecture and construction of the brain begin before birth, continues rapidly in early childhood and continue right into our 30s
Every second over one million new neuron-connections develop between birth and the age of 5. Experiences shape the development of the brain and can help to lay a strong foundation for the later stages of life. The first skills to develop, include vision and hearing, closely followed by language and more complex cognitive functions. After the age of 5, the number of neuron connections decreases with the remaining ones becoming more focused and effective. To begin with, simple circuits form for trivial tasks, which then become the foundation for more complex circuits designed for trickier tasks.
Interaction and experience shape the brain
Children naturally reach out to parents and caregivers to learn and grow. The better the responses, the stronger the architecture of the brain.
Aging decreases the brain’s ability to change
Think of a child’s ability to learn a second language. Thanks to the plasticity of a child’s brain, necessary changes come easy, whereas fully mature brains may struggle. The aging process makes it more difficult for brain circuits to change, so learning a new language is much easier during childhood. Other learning processes also require more effort as people age.
Early childhood social, emotional, and cognitive skills create the foundation for the rest of a person’s life
If you spend a lot of time interacting and supporting your child, you’re helping to lay the foundation for a happy future. The social, cognitive, and emotional skills developed during early childhood set the tone for the capacities present throughout later life.
The dangers of toxic stress
Scientists now know that kids who are exposed to lasting stress may suffer a lifetime of negative consequences. While it is important for children to learn to deal with short-term stress, unrelenting pressure is detrimental to brain development. Therefore, it is crucial for parents and caregivers to shield children from prolonged periods of excess stress.
These findings highlight the unparalleled brain development happening during early childhood. What’s more, the crucial role parents and caregivers play in optimizing this wonderful growth cannot be overstated. It seems, the more positive interaction you have with your child the better for brain development.
Brain Development During Teens and into Adulthood
If you have a teenager at home, you’ll be well aware of the fundamental development happening right in front of you. If you don’t, you probably remember your own teenage years. I do, and it is true to say that this time in life brings about fundamental changes that reverberate throughout life. So, what happens to the brain during your teens? Well, research now suggests that the brain isn’t fully developed until we reach the age of 25, with some experts now suggesting that we only fully mature in our thirties.
Recently, I was tearing my hair out, trying to understand my teenage son’s behavior. He excels at school but sometimes, his decisions seem a little eschewed. Thankfully, I remembered a report I read some years ago. Experts at Stanford Children’s Hospital managed to explain teenage behavior in layman’s terms. Teenagers make emotional rather than rational decisions because that’s how their brain works. They process information with the emotional part of their brain, the amygdala, while adults think with their prefrontal cortex. The connections between these two parts of the brain are only developing during the teens.
New Research Suggests That the Brain Is Only Fully Mature After Reaching 30
Up until now, experts felt that 25 was the age of full brain maturity. However, new research suggests otherwise. Neuroscientist Dr.Sommerville was part of a research team trying to pinpoint brain maturity signatures. Identifying the precise point of full development is complex but at this point, experts believe that the brain continues to mature right into the thirties.
So, what happens in your twenties and early thirties? White brain matter thickens, and grey matter gets thinner. The increase in white matter improves connectivity between the different regions of the brain. The thinning of the grey matter has to do with the brain’s specialisation or pruning. During this process, the brain becomes more efficient. Interestingly, the prefrontal cortex keeps growing. This part of the brain is responsible for short-term memory, planning, logical thinking, organization, personal development, and the control of impulses.
The Aging Brain
Does it all go downhill after that? What does ageing do to your brain? Brain experts confirm that ageing has a detrimental effect on all parts of the brain including molecules, cells, blood vessels, and cognition. With age, the brain shrinks, the prefrontal cortex especially. The blood vessels become more susceptible to stroke, while brain parts responsible for short and long-term memory also deteriorate. However, there’s now a large body of research suggesting that age-related brain deterioration can partially be prevented or at least slowed down.
This brings me back to the original question this article attempts to answer, namely, should we concern ourselves with mental fitness?
Proven Ways to Boost Your Brain Power – Activities and Research Findings
While speaking to a number of health professionals working with elderly people and to a number of elderly relatives, it soon became clear that a variety of aspects shape brain fitness. Admittedly, genetics play a part. But diet and lifestyle also seem to have a marked impact. This brings me back to my grandmother and mother. Both of them spent a lot of time outside and remained physically active throughout their lives. In addition, both enjoyed a simple, natural diet. When consulting experts on these aspects, they confirm that diet and exercise have as much of an impact on mental as on physical health.
So, let’s get specific. What activities or lifestyle choices can you make to improve your brain power? What are the proven ways to boost your brain power?
Doing Crossword Puzzles
Naturally, that was my first point of call. Did my grandmother’s mental sharpness have anything to do with her doing crossword puzzles every night? It didn’t take long for me to find a study to confirm my speculation.
In the US, scientists carried out a study with 488 people in the Bronx. They found that those who did crossword puzzles saw the onset of dementia delayed by more than two and a half years.
Reading, Especially Novels
My mother has read hundreds of novels. Is that why she is still so quick-witted? It turns out, reading is a great brain-boosting activity. Reading novels is even better, in fact, it changes the brain. The Emory University study results have been well-publicized at this point. Up until this study, brain activity during reading had been studied extensively, but here, scientists discovered that reading has a lasting impact on the brain.
Participants were asked to read a novel, with scientists taking MRI scans before and after reading. The scans showed that reading strengthens the connectivity in the area of the brain responsible for language learning. In addition, researchers observed that readers may experience “embodied semantics.” This means that if, for instance, you read about running, the parts of your brain associated with running get stimulated too. This makes sense as the reader naturally identifies with the protagonist of a novel.
How long this improved connectivity lasts remains unclear. In this study, the positive after-effects were still visible on an MRI five days later. So, reading novels is one of the proven ways to boost your brain power.
Listening to and playing music
Incidentally, my dad, now also in his eighties and just a mentally fresh as ever – loves playing the piano. So, what impact does music have on brain fitness? Numerous studies have shown that music can enhance cognitive function. Just listening improves reading, reasoning, and mathematical skills, studies have revealed.
Learning how to play an instrument during childhood is also highly beneficial. Scientists at the Northwestern University have discovered that doing so can help your adult brain, with the positive impact lasting as much as 40 years.
The brain benefits of music go even further. A different study highlighted that music can speed up the brain function of elderly people, improve memory, and may also play a crucial part in the fight against dementia.
Playing computer games
You may be surprised to see this here, however, one study has proven that playing computer or virtual reality computer games may help to improve cognitive function. In some people, playing such games also helped to sharpen memory and improve coordination.
Several studies have highlighted the brain-boosting benefits of exercise. So, why is keeping fit good for your brain? Numerous studies highlight that exercising increases the blood and oxygen supply to the brain. In addition, it changes the brain’s structure and enhances functions like memorizing and problem-solving. Furthermore, exercising may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Learning a foreign language
When you hear this, you may consider learning a foreign language. One study has shown that bilingual people delay the onset of dementia by four years, making it another one of our proven ways to boost your brain power.
Eating a healthy diet
Diet doesn’t just impact your physical help, it’s just as important when it comes to brain health. Including foods rich in omega 3 is a sure way to boost your brain. You may also want to enjoy the following foods on a regular basis:
- Nuts and seeds
- Oily fish
- Dark chocolate
- Whole grains
Getting a good night’s sleep
Studies have revealed the importance of good sleep. Sleeping well helps your brain’s cognitive function and improves its plasticity. In contrast, a lack of sleep can have a significant negative impact on brain function and mental health. If you just consider the difference a good night’s sleep can make, you won’t be surprised that this is one of the proven ways to boost your brain power.
These are some of the brain-boosting activities you may want to include in your daily routine. But are there any activities or diets that can damage your brain? Let’s take a brief look.
Activities Damaging to Brain Health
If you want to optimize your brain fitness, drop the following activities:
- Not sleeping enough can lead to a reduction in brain function and cause mental health issues.
- Spending too much time alone: Studies have shown that social interaction boosts brain health
- Eating junk food: Researchers have discovered that junk food can reduce the brain’s learning ability and curb the generation of neurons. Consuming highly processed and sugary foods can lead to the inflammation of the hippocampus. Resisting the temptation of sugary drinks can be difficult for kids and young adults because their frontal cortex has not been fully developed yet. Studies on rats have shown that those given sugary drinks before reaching maturity found it more difficult to resist them in adulthood. When eating junk foods, the brain produces dopamine, a hormone associated with feelings of happiness. The trouble is, over time, the brain creates more dopamine receptors. This means that you need to eat an ever-increasing amount to get the same dopamine-kick.
- Listening to loud music on your headphones: Excess noise damages your hearing, and hearing loss is seen as a contributory factor in the development of dementia.
- Smoking: Smoking can make the brain shrink.
- Eating too much: Overeating is as bad for your brain as it is for your body.
- Not getting enough sunlight: Your brain needs sufficient sunlight to function properly
- Drinking too much alcohol: The brain of a heavy drinker does indeed shrink, although, contrary to common beliefs, this shrinkage is not permanent if the individual stops or significantly moderates her/his drinking. How long it takes to restore the brain to its former size is unclear.
Common sense must prevail, so I guess it’s best to steer clear of the above activities if you want to optimize your brain power.
All this information would make you think that the lives previous generations lived, lend themselves to maintaining and boosting brain power to a much greater degree than today’s lifestyles. People spend more time outdoors, where naturally physically active, and enjoyed social interaction right up until they died.
In my grandmother’s time, junk food didn’t exist, nor was she ever in danger of lacking sunlight or loneliness. Working in the garden and raising seven children must also have had a positive impact on her brain health.
In 2006, 26.6 million people worldwide suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. To a large extent, this can be attributed to advances in medicine in other areas of health. Nonetheless, I wonder if today’s fast-paced, stress-filled lives have a negative impact on our brain power.
Thankfully, we’ve got sufficient information to look after our brain function. Engaging in brain-boosting activities is a must, seeing as no one can escape the ageing process. As for me, I will try to follow in my mother’s footsteps and spend hours-on-end reading riveting novels.
On a very final note, you may like to know that looking at images of cute animals can improve your concentration. Scientists in Japan showed study participants a range of images prior to a test. Those who looked at pictures of cute animals fared better. So, the next time you have an important meeting or task coming up, spend a little time looking at an image like the one below.
So, these are the proven ways to boost your brain power we’ve come across. Have you discovered any others? Please comment below.