4 ways to exercise your brain as you age

The human brain is still a mystery, but one thing scientists are certain of. This means that this complex organ can still function just as well as we do age. There are ways to enhance and shape the agility and functionality of the brain.

The brain shrinks with age but cranial nerve activation is more significant

Have you noticed that people of the same age have different memory skills?

Besides memories, a person’s ability to think, reason, communicate, and solve problems is also linked to their perception. Cognitive ability does not necessarily decline with age.

A healthy human brain contains tens of billions of specialized neurons that process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. [1]

Unlike many of the relatively short-lived cells in the body, neurons can survive for an extended period of time through self-maintenance and repair. During this process, neurons are constantly adjusting or remodeling their synaptic connections — the connections through which neurons communicate with other neurons and receive stimuli. Even adult brains can generate new nerve cells (neurogenesis).

Remodeling of synaptic connections and neurogenesis is important for memory, learning, and possibly brain repair.

A healthy brain shrinks to a certain degree during the aging process, but it does not lose a large number of neurons. However, in Alzheimer’s patients, most neurons become damaged and eventually stop working, thus experiencing cognitive decline.

Pei-Ning Wang, professor of neurology at Yangming University and director of the Dementia Treatment and Research Center at Taipei Veterans Hospital in Taiwan, pointed out a myth about the brain — the bigger the brain, the better the memory and cognition. He said that neural activity and neural connections are more important than brain size.

As we age, the brain also undergoes normal aging.

The human brain shrinks every year after our 30s and 40s, and it shrinks at a rate of about 5% every decade after our 40s. Between the ages of 60 and 70, its shrinkage rate will increase even more. [2][3]

Pei-Ning Wang explained that reducing normal brain size has nothing to do with human intelligence. What determines cognitive ability is whether neurons are active and whether connections between neurons are good.

The brain can contain a large number of neurons, but if the neurons rarely work and are not well connected to each other, then one’s memory and brain agility will not be good. Conversely, when neurons in the brain are very active and well connected, the brain can still function well despite its advanced age.

Moreover, the brain shrinks faster if neuronal activity is low and neural connections deteriorate, similar to a 40-year-old woman with wrinkles on her 70-year-old’s face.

Factors that cause the brain to deteriorate faster

Acceleration of brain aging may be caused by certain diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. Poor circulation can lead to hardening of blood vessels and inflammation of the brain, which in turn can damage the cerebral vascular system. Smoking and drinking can also cause chronic diseases and damage the brain.

Depression, a common mental disorder, can accelerate brain degeneration if left untreated.

Car accidents, boxing, football, and other sports that cause head injuries can damage nerve cells in the brain and loosen nerve connections.

Not using the brain regularly, living a sedentary lifestyle, and performing little physical activity can reduce brain function. Too little exercise affects blood circulation and blood oxygenation, which is detrimental to neurological regeneration. Bi-Ning Wang said that the exercises themselves can stimulate the secretion of nerve growth hormone and increase the speed and quantity of nerve regeneration.

Unhealthy habits can affect brain health, too.

“One of the worst (brain-damaging) habits is watching TV,” said Guan Zheng, a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

According to three studies in 2021, moderate to high amounts of television viewing in middle age is associated with smaller gray matter volume later in life. The gray matter contains most of the nerve cell bodies. [4]

After years of follow-up, the researchers found that middle-aged adults who watched TV moderately or regularly experienced a 6.9 percent decline in cognitive function over 15 years, compared to those who never or rarely watched TV.

Ryan Dougherty, a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who led the study, noted that an average increase in television viewing time of one hour was associated with a decrease in gray matter volume of about 0.5 percent.

While these studies concluded that regular television viewing was not significantly associated with an increased risk of dementia, they also found that exercise did not appear to alter the negative effects of regular television viewing on the cognitive function of the brain.

Why is watching TV so bad for the brain? There are two reasons: watching TV makes people sedentary, and the brain doesn’t need much thinking. Even if you follow healthy habits and don’t smoke or drink alcohol, your brain will gradually get worse while watching TV.

Guan Zeng said that when people watch TV, their brains are being fed messages in a negative way. Old people should turn off the TV and go outside to chat with others. This is one of the easiest maintenance methods Brain health.

Brain plasticity can occur at any age

If you watch TV frequently, is it too late to take care of your brain?

“In fact, the brain is adaptable, no matter how old it is,” said Bai-Ning Wang. The brain has a high plasticity compared to other organs. Whether it is a brain injury or a stroke, brain function can improve through rehabilitation.

The brain is constantly adapting while learning. From birth and throughout life. During adulthood, the brain continues to make adjustments and connections based on our daily experiences, and through the things we see, hear, and learn.

The hippocampus, located deep in the temporal lobe, plays an important role in learning and short-term memory retention. It is also an area where cranial nerve regeneration is relatively active.

A study found that the hippocampus of London taxi drivers is relatively large. In order to obtain a London taxi driving licence, students spend 3 to 4 years learning the complex streets of London – over 60,000 streets, including one-way lanes and turn restrictions, and over 100,000 places and landmarks. Reinforcement learning resulted in more neuronal regeneration and connectivity in the hippocampus. [5]

Bi-Ning Wang pointed out that London taxi drivers have to use their brains to memorize these routes every day, which is more helpful in activating the brain than listening to navigation instructions.

The research result is encouraging – even in adulthood, we can still stimulate the brain by learning things to achieve positive changes in the brain. And there are things we can do to enhance neuronal regeneration and connectivity.

1. Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercises such as jogging, brisk walking, swimming and dancing can increase the size of the hippocampus and brain.

A study on the effects of aerobic exercise on brain volume in older adults found that cardiovascular exercise helps prevent degeneration of brain tissue. Researchers believe that aerobic exercise can promote the growth of new capillaries in the brain, increase connections and the number of nerve cells, and delay neurological decline in the elderly. [6]

Pei-Ning Wang recommended dance because it is a combination of mental and physical activities, where one needs to memorize the dance steps and learn the moves at the same time.

2. Stationary activities that involve thinking

Although stationary activities, such as doing sudoku, reading, and playing chess, do not require physical movement, they are better than watching TV. These types of sedentary brain activities help maintain cognitive function and reduce the likelihood of developing dementia. [7]

3. Switch between dynamic and static activities

Doing housework, gardening, and traveling require mental and physical strength. Let’s take travel as an example. The body and mind are involved in planning a trip, selecting trip activities, organizing travel information, and completing the trip.

4. Develop broad interests

Guan Zeng said that different areas of the brain can be fully stimulated and activated, similar to how a balanced diet provides many nutrients. So, in addition to doing housework, playing sports, and reading, you can also listen to music, sing, and enjoy the performing arts. The entire brain is activated when watching a show that includes music, singing, dancing, and drama.

Camille Sue

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Camille So is a health reporter covering diseases, nutrition and investigative topics. Do you have advice? kuanmi.su@epochtimes.com

Health 1 + 1

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