Book Review: The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age by Alvero Fernandez
Of all the organs in the human body, a cryonicist should be most concerned about the health and integrity of his or her brain. Thousands of books have been written about physical health and fitness, but very few address the topic of how to keep the brain fit and healthy. Happily, interest in brain fitness, once relegated to academics and gerontologists, is now taking root across America and the world.
The importance of lifelong learning and mental stimulation as a component of healthy aging has long been recognized and touted as a way to stay mentally alert and to stave off dementia in old age. As with physical exercise, “use it or lose it” appears to apply to our brains too. And now that scientists are learning more about neuroplasticity and how brains change as a result of aging, they have begun to test the effects of various factors on brain health and cognitive ability across the lifespan.
Unfortunately, like much health-related research, the results reported by the media have often been convoluted, confusing, and even contradictory. Products developed by overzealous entrepreneurs make outlandish claims and frequently don’t deliver the purported results. Consumers and professionals alike are left wondering what works and what doesn’t when it comes to maintaining our brains in optimal working condition.
To aid all those navigating the murky waters of brain fitness, enter SharpBrains—a company dedicated to tracking news, research, technology, and trends in brain health and to disseminating information about the applications of brain science innovation. In so doing, they “maintain an annual state-of-the-market consumer report series, publish consumer guides to inform decision-making, produce an annual global and virtual professional conference,” and maintain SharpBrains.com, a leading educational blog and website with over 100,000 monthly readers.
Most recently, SharpBrains has published a book on brain fitness called The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age. A compilation and condensation of information accumulated over the lifespan of the company, The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness emphasizes credible research and goes to great lengths to provide the most up-to-date research results in specific areas of brain fitness, followed by interviews with scientists doing work in those fields. The goal of the guide is to help the reader begin to “cultivate a new mindset and master a new toolkit that allow us appreciate and take full advantage of our brain’s incredible properties…[by] providing the information and understanding to make sound and personally relevant decisions about how to optimize your own brain health and performance.”
The Guide begins by emphasizing that the brain’s many neuronal networks serve distinct functions including various types of memory, language, emotional regulation, attention, and planning. Plasticity of the brain is defined as its lifelong capacity to change and reorganize itself in response to the stimulation of learning and experience—the foundation upon which “brain training” to improve cognitive performance at any age, and to maintain brain health into old age, is predicated.
The difficulty of making sense of the scientific findings on brain health and neuroplasticity is discussed at length, with the finger of blame pointed squarely at the media for reporting only fragments of the research and for often reporting those results which are not most meaningful. The authors stress that “it is critical to complement popular media sources with independent resources, and above all with one’s own informed judgment.”
The following chapters go on to review what is known today about how physical exercise, nutrition, mental challenge, social engagement, and stress management can positively affect brain health. Along the way they provide dozens of relevant research results (as well as the design of each study) to support their recommendations. Reporting on all of those experiments is beyond the scope of this review, so if you are interested in examining them (and you should be!) please obtain a copy of the Guide for yourself or from your local library.
Physical exercise is discussed first because of the very strong evidence that exercise—especially aerobic, or “cardio,” exercise slows atrophy of the brain associated with aging, actually increasing the brain’s volume of neurons (i.e., “gray matter”) and connections between neurons (i.e., “white matter”). While much of the initial research supporting the effects of exercise on the brain came from animal studies, the authors report that “several brain imaging studies have now shown that physical exercise is accompanied by increased brain volume in humans.”
Staying physically fit improves cognition across all age groups, with particularly large benefits for so-called “executive” functions such as planning, working memory, and inhibition. A 2010 meta-analysis by the NIH also concluded that physical exercise is a key factor in postponing cognitive decline and/or dementia, while other studies have found physical exercise to lower the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, as well.
But don’t think that just any moving around will do the trick. When it comes to providing brain benefits, a clear distinction is drawn between physical activity and physical exercise. Only exercise will trigger the biochemical changes in the brain that spur neurogenesis and support neuroplasticity. It doesn’t need to be particularly strenuous, but to be most beneficial it should raise your heart rate and increase your breathing rate.
Of course, adequate nutrition is also imperative in obtaining and maintaining optimal brain health. The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness primarily highlights the well-known benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which consists of a high intake of vegetables, fruit, cereals, and unsaturated fats, a low intake of dairy products, meat, and saturated fats, a moderate intake of fish, and regular but moderate alcohol consumption. But I think it is safe to say that the jury is still out on the best diet for the brain, as evidenced by the recent popularity of the Paleo diet among life extentionists. And, of course, ethnicity and genetics are important, too. The authors do stress the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants obtained from dietary sources, stating firmly that “to date, no supplement has conclusively been shown to improve cognitive functioning, slow down cognitive decline, or postpone Alzheimer’s disease symptoms beyond placebo effect.” This includes herbal supplements such as Ginko biloba and St. John’s wort.
Beyond what we normally do to keep our bodies healthy, the Guide also discusses the relative effectiveness of different forms of “mental exercise.” Perhaps you’ve heard that doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles will keep you sharp and alert into old age, or that speaking multiple languages is associated with decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The good news is that these things are true—to a degree. The part that is often left out is that it’s the challenge of these activities that is important. As with physical activity vs. physical exercise, mental exercise refers to the subset of mental activities that are effortful and challenging.
Puzzles and games may be challenging at first, but they (and other mental exercises) can quickly become routine and unchallenging. In order to reap the most benefit from mental exercise, the goal is to be exposed to novelty and increasing levels of challenge. Variety is important for stimulating all aspects of cognitive ability and performance, so excessive specialization is not the best strategy for maintaining long-term brain health. If you are an artist, try your hand at strategybased games. If you’re an economist, try an artistic activity. Get out of your comfort zone in order to stimulate skills that you rarely use otherwise.
The SharpBrains Guide states that “lifelong participation in cognitively engaging activities results in delayed cognitive decline in healthy individuals and in spending less time living with dementia in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.” This is hypothesized to be because doing so builds up one’s “cognitive reserve”—literally an extra reservoir of neurons and neuronal connections—which may be utilized so that a person continues to function normally even in the face of underlying Alzheimer’s or other brain pathology. This observation raises another important point on which neuroscientists and physiologists do not yet fully agree. Will we all eventually get dementia if we live long enough without credible brain rejuvenation biotechnologies? This is a topic I would like to return to in a future installment of Cooler Minds Prevail.
Social engagement also appears to provide brain benefits. The NIH meta-analysis mentioned earlier concluded that higher social engagement in mid- to late life is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risk of cognitive decline. Brain imaging studies indicate an effect of social stimulation on the volume of the amygdala, a structure that plays a major role in our emotional responses and which is closely connected to the hippocampus, which is important for memory.
Yet again, not all activity is equal. When it comes to social stimulation, “you can expect to accrue more benefits within groups that have a purpose (such as a book club or a spiritual group) compared to casual social interactions (such as having a drink with a friend to relax after work).” To keep socially engaged across the lifespan, seek out interactions that naturally involve novelty, variety, and challenge such as volunteering and participating in social groups.
“The lifelong demands on any person have changed more rapidly in the last thousand years than our genes and brains have,” The SharpBrains Guide explains in the intro to the chapter on stress management. The result? It has become much more difficult to regulate stress and emotions. It is great that we have such amazing and complex brains, but humans are among the few animals that can get stressed from their own thoughts. And while there are some (potentially) beneficial effects of short bursts of stress, high and sustained levels of stress can have a number of negative consequences. Those of note include: increased levels of blood cortisol which can lead to sugar imbalances, high blood pressure, loss of muscle tissue and bone density, lower immunity, and cause damage to the brain; a reduction of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which has been linked to depression; and a hampering of our ability to make changes to reduce the stress, resulting in General Adaption Syndrome (aka “burnout”).
Research-based lifestyle solutions to combat stress include exercise, relaxation, socialization, humor and laughter, and positive thinking. In particular, targeted, capacity-building techniques such as biofeedback and meditation are recommended to manage stress and build resilience. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs have provided evidence that meditative techniques can help manage stress and research shows that MBSR can lead to decreases in the density of an area of the amygdala which is correlated with reduction in reported stress.
So it appears that multiple approaches are necessary to develop a highly fit brain capable of adapting to new situations and challenges throughout life. “Consequently,” The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness states, “we expect cross-training the brain to soon become as mainstream as cross-training the body is today, going beyond unstructured mental activity in order to maximize specific brain functions.”
There is growing evidence that brain training can work, but in evaluating what “works” we are mostly looking at two things: how successful the training program is (i.e., does it actually improve the skill(s) being trained?) and the likelihood of transfer from training to daily life. Building on an analysis of documented examples of brain training techniques that “work” or “transfer,” SharpBrains suggests the following five conditions need to be met for brain training to be likely to translate into meaningful real world improvements (condensed excerpt):
- Training must engage and exercise a core brain-based capacity or neural circuit identified to be relevant to real-life outcomes.
- The training must target a performance bottleneck.
- A minimum “dose” of 15 hours total per targeted brain function, performed over 8 weeks or less, is necessary for real improvement.
- Training must be adaptive to performance, require effortful attention, and increase in difficulty.
- Over the long-term, the key is continued practice for continued benefits.
Meditation, biofeedback, and/or cognitive therapy in concert with cognitive training to optimize targeted brain functions appear to be winning combinations in terms of successful techniques facilitating transfer from training to real life benefits. Top brain training software programs, based on SharpBrains’ analysis and a survey of their users, include Lumosity, Brain games, brainHQ, Cogmed, and emWave.
In the end, brain fitness needs are unique to each individual and brain fitness claims should be evaluated skeptically. SharpBrains recommends asking several questions when evaluating brain fitness claims, particularly whether there is clear and credible evidence of the program’s success documented in peer-reviewed scientific papers published in mainstream scientific journals that analyze the effects of the specific product.
Of course, your own individual experience with the product is ultimately the most important evaluation of all. If you are ready to take the plunge into the emerging brain fitness market, The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness is a good place to start, and I’m sure they’d appreciate your feedback as this field continues to develop.
Originally published as an article (in the Cooler Minds Prevail series) in Cryonics magazine, August, 2013