Article Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed

A workout for your brain

Aug. 29, 2016 Harvard Health

Fear of losing your memory and thinking skills is one of the greatest concerns of getting older. Maybe that’s behind the increasing number of clinics offering brain fitness programs. “Brain training” isn’t a typical exercise program; it incorporates a number of activities and lifestyle changes to help boost brain function. “It makes very good sense to promote cognitive health using a variety of approaches. I embrace it even as we await more data,” says Dr. Kirk Daffner, a neurologist and medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Improving Memory.

“People come in with problems accessing words or memories or making decisions, and we do see them improve, although we can’t say it’s from any one therapy,” says neurologist Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, director of the Brain Fit Program at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

What’s involved?

A typical brain fitness program incorporates the following.

Physical exercise. “Exercise increases activity in parts of the brain that have to do with executive function and memory and promotes the growth of new brain cells. But most of us don’t work hard enough to realize the benefit. You have to push yourself, and that requires being cleared to exercise and wearing a monitor to get your heart rate to a certain zone. It’s a different heart rate for everyone, and we supervise it,” says Dr. Pascual-Leone.

Cognitive training. This is exercise for your thinking skills that uses computer or video games and pushes you to sharpen your response times and attention. Does it work? “It’s been hard to prove that computer training works. Studies have been mixed. It’s difficult to show that areas of improvement in a game translate to daily activities,” Dr. Daffner says. “Computer training alone doesn’t work.”

Nutrition. This involves a consultation with a dietitian to get people on a Mediterranean diet, which appears to promote brain health and lessen the risk of developing memory problems. The diet features whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats from fish, nuts, and oils. Tailoring calorie intake is also included. “There’s a fair amount of research suggesting that not eating enough is bad for the body and brain, but overeating is also a bad thing. So it appears that eating as little as you can to maintain a healthy weight may help with cognition,” says Dr. Pascual-Leone.

Better sleep. “Poor sleep can undermine cognition. Restoring sleep can help,” says Dr. Daffner. Brain fitness programs typically check for underlying causes of sleep loss, such as a medication side effect, sleep apnea (when a blocked airway during sleep causes you to stop breathing periodically), or an overactive bladder that interrupts sleep for trips to the bathroom.

Meditation. “Meditation or exercises such as tai chi appear to increase something called cognitive reserve,” says Dr. Pascual-Leone. That’s the capacity of the brain to switch between different tasks, allocate resources, and handle unexpected stressors in a way that makes us better able to cope with day-to-day life. “Increasing cognitive reserve may allow the brain to better deal with other neurological problems,” says Dr. Daffner.

Read More on Harvard Health

Gene Upshaw Player Assistance Trust Fund

Apply Today

All Resources

Tell Me More

I’m Overwhelmed. What Can I Do?

How flexible emotion regulation can help improve your mental health.

Read More

Working With Your Partner to Confront and Control Stress

On dyadic coping.

Read More

Learned Hopefulness: The Key to a Successful Life

How to cultivate more authentic hope in your life.

Read More

Finding Peace in an Anxious World

A Personal Perspective: Change seems to be the new norm.

Read More

Beware of store credit cards this holiday

Here's why they may end up costing you more

Read More

Happy Thanksgiving

We're Grateful for You!

Read More

These 5 tricks will help you spend less this holiday season

You don't have to choose between spending a lot or skimping on gifts this year.

Read More

35+ Healthy Thanksgiving Recipes

Last minute dishes can be delicious and healthy.

Read More