Nutrition and The Brain – Part 3

Written by

August 9, 2013

Over the past few weeks, you’ve read about how the brain benefits from physical activity (Part 1), from adequate sleep and healthy food (Part 2).  Now in Part 3, you’ll read about exercise for the brain itself.  This part includes information from Dr. Kirk Erickson’s talk at the conference and from Dr. Neal Barnard’s new book, Power Foods for the Brain – an effective 3-step plan to protect your mind and strengthen your memory.  

As I mentioned previously, the brain is not stagnant.  New cells can grow and new connections can be made.  We take advantage of this situation when we practice new activities.  If you think of brain cells (neurons), as if they are squares on a chessboard, to start, there might be simple connections from one corner to another – one move diagonally or right next door.  However, later into the game, a player needs to be thinking multiple moves in advance on how to avoid the opponent’s piece or refrain from being “captured”.

What verbal and cognitive challenges do is help create more complex paths.  Instead of only being able to go along certain routes, one corner to another, working on brain challenges helps create more complex and alternate routes between neurons.  This is called cognitive reserve.  If you lose a few of these paths over the years, you still have other ways of reaching information.  How many times have you had delayed recall of something, long after you stopped thinking about it?  The info is there somewhere, you just need to get at it. 

Well educated people have developed more ‘alternate routes’ over their years of education and often retain mental clarity longer.  One confusing issue is that if you start your senior years (as in 75 years old, not as in high school grade) with greater knowledge, you will notice a decline sooner than others will.  You may score in the normal range on a ‘mini-mental status exam’ that we perform in the office, even though you’ve lost 1/2 of your memory.  That’s because you’re starting at such a high level of function that you don’t reach the ‘average’ range until you’ve lost much of that function.  But you know what you’re used to being able to do, and you can tell the difference earlier.

People who are multilingual lifelong and actually use those languages have delayed decrease in memory.  It makes sense, since this probably increases the redundancy in paths we talked about earlier.  For any one word, you have multiple correct options – one or more in each language, with each one connected to multiple paths.  Therefore you’re more likely to remember the word, even if it’s hours later.  It’s not clear yet if learning a language later in life provides the same benefit, but it might. 

Formal schooling isn’t the only way to lay down these connections.  Working on crossword puzzles, reading a book or newspaper, playing bridge, or doing any other activity as long as it is mentally stimulating can work also.  The strength is ‘task specific’ though.  Someone who practices playing chess can be a better chess player, but it won’t necessarily improve his crossword puzzle abilities.  Similarly, memorization games may help memory but won’t impact problem-solving abilities. That’s why It’s a good idea to do a variety of ‘brain exercises’ to have the best chance of retaining a broad range of abilities.

In July, 2013 in the journal Neurology, 294 people over 55 were tested annually from age 55 until they died, at an average age of 89.  Those involved frequently in seeking or processing information had a 30% slower rate of decline in cognitive function over the course of those years.  The benefit was similar for those who had had more brain exercise early in life also.  So, get it early, or get it late — just keep exercising that brain!  It helps memory as well as mood and quality of life.  

For online brain exercises, check out and/or – these were mentioned at the conference.  You can try these for a trial period for free, then would need to subscribe at $5-14 per month to continue ‘exercising’.  One task in facial recognition goes like this: a face is flashed on the screen, then you need to identify that same person when several choices are given.  At a higher level, you had to identify the person in various frontal and silhouette poses.  My goal was to improve my ability to remember people’s names when I meet them, but I think I need more help than a trial period could give.  If anyone has tried the full paid version and thinks it’s worthwhile for this, please let me know!!  Judging from my behavior during the trial period, though, I could see myself getting way too addicted to the games and getting nothing else done.  They are set up like video games in the sense that when you achieve good results at a certain level, you advance to the next.  This makes it hard to walk away!

One caveat that was mentioned is that these exercises are meant to delay dementia.  If you are working with someone who already has significant memory loss, you can play games to improve memory, but you should be careful to play a game that he or she is capable of – otherwise it just becomes an exercise in frustration.  Again, the benefit is task-specific.  Practicing playing solitaire won’t necessarily allow someone to remember their phone number. 

Other factors to consider regarding brain health are sleep and stress.  With respect to their effects on mental decline, sleep deprivation and increased levels of stress both raise the level of cortisol, a stress hormone in the blood.  In turn, the cortisol decreases the ability to remember facts and events.  It also decreases the ability to lose weight.  So, for multiple reasons, we should all aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.

We’re back to the same old story – use exercise, sleep and mental engagement to stay well.  And have fun while you’re doing it. 

See you all soon,