There’s a bright spot. If we work the brain, we can grow new brain cells. “There is a gradual growing awareness that challenging your brain can have positive effects,” says Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University. “Every time you challenge your brain, it will actually modify the brain. We can indeed form new brain cells, despite a century of being told it’s impossible.”
Computer programs to improve brain performance are a booming business.
One form of training, however, has been shown to maintain and improve brain health — physical exercise. In humans, exercise improves what scientists call “executive function,” the set of abilities that allows you to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions.
Executive function starts to decline when people reach their 70s. But elderly people who have been athletic all their lives have much better executive function than sedentary people of the same age. This relationship might occur because people who are healthier tend to be more active, but that’s not the whole story. When inactive people get more exercise, even starting in their 70s, their executive function improves, as shown in a recent meta-analysis of 18 studies. One effective training program involves just 30 to 60 minutes of fast walking several times a week.
So instead of spending money on computer games or puzzles to improve your brain’s health, invest in a gym membership. Or just turn off the computer and go for a brisk walk.
[Exercise on the Brain, November 8, 2007, article by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang]