By Ram Rao, Ph.D., Principal Research Scientist for Apollo Health

In the last newsletter, I wrote about the importance of reading and writing to keep the brain alert and boost a declining memory. Evidence-based research studies acknowledge and accept the importance of brain training/strengthening exercises to influence brain health and optimal well-being. Brain exercises build and remodel neural network connectivity for people of all ages. Incorporating brain exercises into one’s life can help reap the benefits of a sharper mind and a healthier body for years to come. In general, people who possess a higher level of brain agility are also physically healthy and live a high-quality, harmonious life.

Brain stimulating exercises trigger the production of nerve growth factors that stimulate new neural branches and connections. The term “neuroplasticity” refers to the brain’s capacity to mold, rewire, and establish new neural connections through stimulating and challenging learning and experiences. I like to think of neuroplasticity as a process that’s similar to walking trails. If you are on a walking trail, you have probably noticed that frequent use causes it to get broader and wider. Over time, these trails appear more obvious as they become well-traveled. In the same way, the brain is constantly changing, sculpting, and rewiring itself in response to new experiences and learning. As these new neural branches strengthen, they become well-established and permanent.

The functions attributed to the cortex and hippocampus (learning, memory acquisition, recall, planning, cognitive behavior, personality, social behavior, and decision-making) become compromised with each passing year. Hence, as people age, they generally complain about an inability to learn new things and retrieve new information. They also perform poorly on complex tasks of attention, learning, and memory. In contrast, the brains of individuals who are constantly engaged in brain training and strengthening exercises will appear like a dense forest of thickly branched neural connectivity.

The London taxi/cab study is a perfect example of the brain’s neuroplastic response to mental challenges. London taxi drivers undergo four years of exhaustive training, including memorizing all of London’s streets, secondary roads, by-lanes, and alleys. Then, the drivers-in-training appear for a unique intellectual, psychological, and physical examination to obtain the license to operate the cab.  In contrast to bus drivers whose driving routes are well established and unchanging — London taxi drivers demonstrate strong visual-spatial expertise by navigating effortlessly to thousands of places within the city, thanks to their extensive training. Moreover, constantly learning and memorizing new routes in the city and reorganizing those routes during traffic emergencies is a brain strengthening exercise that forces the taxi drivers’ brains to transform and create new neural connections.

In the United States, while automobiles have steering wheels on the left side, the US Postal Service vehicles and residential-pickup garbage trucks are right-hand-drive vehicles. Thus, garbage truck and postal drivers have to constantly switch between their private left-hand-drive autos and their work-related right-hand-drive vehicles, thereby continually challenging their brains. I believe that the incidence of Alzheimer’s and dementia may be relatively low among these drivers, although this needs to be tested through a proper research study. Furthermore, suppose these drivers combined their daily duties with good dietary practices, physical exercise, sleep, and proper stress management techniques (aka-the Bredesen Seven-B7), it follows that they will possess robust brains.

However, you don’t need to be a postal carrier or a garbage collector to challenge your brain. By learning new things, trying out different hobbies and interests, and constantly engaging in mentally stimulating activities, you too can keep your brain strong. Some of the brain-strengthening activities include but are not limited to; solving complex equations and puzzles, reading and writing, visual-spatial learning, dancing, exposure to new experiences, memorizing passages and texts, and recalling whatever is memorized correctly. These brain fitness exercises can be performed in various settings and have a long-lasting beneficial effect for everyone to experience. Here are some suggestions to exercise and strengthen your brain and promote neuroplasticity:  

• The next time you find yourself stuck in traffic, instead of cursing at the people and cars around you, engage in brain exercises instead. For example, observe the license plates’ designs and state slogans of the cars, and car colors and makes. Try to memorize these details and recall them later that day.

• Learn a new language to strengthen neural connections.

• During your free time, attempt word searches, crosswords, Sudoku, and logic puzzles.

• If you are with a group of people, engage in intelligent card games such as bridge or blackjack, requiring reasoning, logic, and concentration.

• Several research studies have demonstrated that memorizing verses, texts, lyrics, or poems increases the size of the brain regions associated with cognitive function, including memory and thinking.

• Learn to play a musical instrument. Playing requires learning and memorizing new notes, rhythm, beats, etc., all of which promote neuroplasticity. Wind instruments, in particular, need diaphragmatic (belly) breathing and require powerful airflow. Playing a wind instrument engages the mind, abdominal muscles, lungs, and heart — a perfect example of exercising the brain and body simultaneously.

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