Yes We Can... Improve Our Brain Fitness

02/05/2008 08:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On Saturday I did not have time to devote energies to promote my favorite candidate ahead of Super Tuesday since around 60 curious minds were waiting for me in San Jose's Martin Luther King library. There, I delivered an intensive workshop on how our brains work and how to maintain them in top shape.

Why does this topic matter?

More and more research is showing that, by leading mentally stimulating lives, through education, jobs, and hobbies, we can build a "Cognitive Reserve" in our brains. The more neurons we have, and the stronger the connections between them, the "smarter" AND more protected we become against potential problems in our later years.

Only 10 years ago, most scientists would have reinforced the age old saying, "old dogs cannot learn new tricks." In other words, they would have maintained that our brains are rigid and decline after age 18 and that no neurons can be created after childhood.

A US presidential candidate is inspiring millions these days with the reminder "Yes, we can." And, indeed, at least when it comes to our brains, there is ample evidence that "Yes, we can."

Today we know that stimulating the brain can literally generate new neurons and strengthen their connections which results in better brain performance and in a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's symptoms. Studies suggest that people who exercise their mental muscles throughout their lives have a 35-40% less risk of manifesting Alzheimer's symptoms.

Further, better brain scanning techniques like fMRI are allowing scientists to investigate healthy people's brains while they are still alive for the first time in history. Probably the most fascinating findings from this research is that our brains are plastic (meaning they not only create new neurons but also change their structure) throughout a lifetime, reflecting our experiences.

Imagine the implications for people of all ages: The earlier we begin the better. And it is never too late.

What can we do to maintain our brain and build that "Cognitive Reserve"? Focus on the four pillars of brain health: physical exercise, a balanced diet, stress management, and brain exercise. Stress management is important since stress has been shown to actually kill neurons and reduce the rate of creating new ones. Brain exercises range from low-tech (i.e. meditation, mastering new, complex skills, lifelong learning and engagement) to high-tech (i.e. using the growing number of brain fitness software programs in the market).

To sum it all up, when it comes to the brain (and, perhaps to US politics), we know: Yes, We Can. Yes, We Can. Yes, We Can.