THE BLOG
11/05/2013 05:48 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

7 Ways to Optimize Your Brain

How can neuroscience-based innovation enhance behavioral and brain health? This was the question asked at the SharpBrains Virtual Summit, which brought together 170 participants from 19 countries. More than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from brain-based health and productivity challenges resulting in a global economic burden of more than $2 trillion. According to a recent survey, the number one fear of Baby Boomers is getting Alzheimer's -- the debilitating disease that slowly killed my father.

Given advances in imaging technology, we now know that the brain is affected by every experience, thought and emotion. Brain stimulation can increase neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to "rewire" itself) and neurogenesis (the formation of new nerve cells). There is no specific prescription that works across the board for brain fitness. Instead, experts talk about the following "pillars."

1. Exercise often. Consistent aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging or biking) can generate new cells and blood vessels in the brain, and increase the brain's volume principally in the frontal and temporal areas involved in executive control such as planning and working memory. Neurosurgeon Larry McCleary M.D., recommends at least 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week, along with a mix of weight training, balance drills and speed/agility components such as jumping rope.

2. Make sleep a priority. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), sleep appears necessary for our nervous systems to work properly. It gives us "downtime" for growth and repair. Studies indicate that many of the body's cells show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during sleep. Products like Lark, a silent, vibrating alarm clock and sleep tracker can help you understand your own sleep patterns.

3. Cross-train your brain. The saying "use it or lose it" clearly applies to brain fitness. It's vital to constantly step out of your comfort zone. SharpBrains CEO Alvaro Fernandez emphasizes "novelty, variety and challenge." If you play chess, then take up hiking. If you do a lot of physical activities, then learn another language. Even reading a series of mystery novels, according to acclaimed educator Robert Sylwester, Ph.D., can challenge your brain to keep up with the plots and characters. Learning and "brain play" help to boost cognitive reserve and delay mental decline -- and it's fun! The online training site Lumosity now has 45 million users and 1 billion game plays.

4. Manage stress and meditate. The stress hormone cortisol can kill brain cells, and chronic stress can cause memory loss. Any form of stress management is good. Meditation offers a brain boost. In addition to lowering stress, it has been shown to increase cerebral blood flow and activate certain parts of the brain to improve concentration, focus and mood. Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., President & Medical Director of the Alzheimer's Research & Prevention Foundation has done extensive research on Kirtan Kriya -- a type of meditation that takes just 12 minutes a day and has been shown to enhance genetic health, and decrease depression and inflammation markers.

5. Eat a plant-based diet. Eating too much sugary, highly processed food is bad for the body and the brain. It can alter blood flow to the brain and impair cognition. This is one reason why diabetes is a risk factor for cognitive dysfunction. Our brains need glucose to function and more natural whole foods provide a slower and more constant source of fuel. The Mediterranean Diet, in particular, has been shown to be brain-healthy. It focuses on a high intake of vegetables, fruit, cereals, unsaturated fats, and a low intake of dairy products and a moderate intake of fish.

6. Be purposeful and connected. Get together with your friends and do something meaningful. People who have a rich social network and who have a clear purpose in life have been shown to have a decreased instance of Alzheimer's. The key is to increase the frequency of positive experiences. Bill Conklin, Psy.D. said, "Enjoying pleasurable activities, doing something that seems to make time stand still, spending time with loved ones, pursuing meaning in its many forms, and celebrating accomplishments stimulate the activity in your left prefrontal cortex."

7. Monitor yourself. Remember the mood ring? Now there are a host of devices using biosensors to record things like brain waves, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, and even mood. For example, Emotiv offers a wireless headset that monitors your brain activity and translates EEG into data you can understand. Perhaps there will be a time when we go to the doctor for an annual mental check-up. Until then, sites like Lumosity and BrainBaseline can help you track your own brain's performance. Misha Pavel, Ph.D., Program Director at the National Science Foundation, said, "We are now in the age of observation. The availability of data allows us to get smarter about our behaviors."

There is no miracle "smart drug" like in the movie Limitless. Instead, your everyday actions, with the help of technology, can help boost your brain health and thrive at every point in life. As Dr. Khalsa said, "It's not just about memory. It's about living the best life you can."

Dr. Kennedy is an internationally-recognized voice in Personal Empowerment & Leadership, Health & Productivity Management and Sustainability offering a unique, multidisciplinary approach to success in work and life. A Harvard-trained strategist and social entrepreneur, she is known for applying the principles and techniques from yoga and mindfulness to the Power Living coaching process in order to help people boost their brain power and have the clarity and energy to reach their highest potential. Check out her coaching services, private yoga training, inspirational products, blog and/or speaking services.

If you want training in meditation and/or need help optimizing your life for brain health, check out her special "Optimal Brain Power" coaching program. For additional tips, watch the "Optimize your Brain Power" interview with Dr. Michael Hutchinson, Associate Professor of Neurology at the New York University. For more research and information, check out The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance At Any Age.

For more by Dr. Terri Kennedy, click here.