THE BLOG
09/04/2013 06:02 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Get Up and Go for Brain Fitness

Last week, I was having dinner with several buddies. As usual when we get together, we had a great time catching up. We talked about everything you'd expect from a bunch of middle-age guys: jobs, golf games and lament for our struggling New York Yankees.

Put aside your cheers for a second, though. Another topic came up. And it always seems to end up front and center: the health of our families. But this time it was a little different. A couple of my friends have parents that are in their 80s, and they're beginning to have some cognitive issues -- forgetfulness, repeating themselves and, at times, even getting a bit disoriented. But no sooner had that discussion began, it quickly focused not on our elderly parents but on us.

I wasn't really surprised. It seems that my generation, the baby boomers, those 77 million people born between 1946 and 1964, are now the very people concerned about cognitive well-being. In fact, for many it's becoming a preoccupation. We are either directly involved with or know friends that are dealing with a parent or family member suffering from dementia related diseases. And, as if our own experiences weren't enough, the news keeps reminding us that Alzheimer's disease, the most-well known of these conditions, may reach epidemic proportions soon. By 2050, it's projected that 14 million people in the U.S. alone will be suffering with the disease (By the way, this roughly translates into 45 million family caregivers for those sufferers).

You can say a lot about boomers, but they're not ones to sit idly by and accept a situation. Like with most other things, my generation likes to attack a problem -- not only out of concern for the quality of life for those around us, but, let's face it, for own self-interest. Like the old saying goes, fear is a great motivator.

But, where there's fear, there's always money to be made. And in this case...

Enter the "brain fitness" industry.

It's grown by leaps and bounds lately, but it didn't pop up by accident. In fact, the marketing formula was incredibly simple: Gigantic Population + Fear = a BIG business opportunity. Since the fear, that demand, was already in place, all that was needed was to reinforce it and supply consumers with products and services to address all of their growing cognitive concerns.

Last week, I conducted a little search to see how many related products and services were actually related to brain fitness. There were over 30,000 sources and references to sift through. Check it out yourself. Try Google, Yahoo, AOL, Chrome, Safari or Bing. It doesn't matter. Everywhere you turn, there is some cognitive improvement remedy in offing -- from Gingko pills and fish oil tablets to Sudoku and crosswords to websites such as Luminosity.

But regardless of the dollars and sense, know one thing -- there is scientific basis for all of it. According to more recent scientific studies, the brain does grow new cells and it can actually develop new wiring, adding and removing neuro connections even as a person grows older. This science is called neuroplasticity. Simply put, this means that the brain is not a static organ. It can develop and evolve over time, which as early as 20 years ago was not the common scientific belief.

So, obviously, brain fitness is a wonderful objective. Yet unlike its cousin, physical fitness, it doesn't have as clear and tangible of a path to achievement. Where physical fitness can be measured on a daily basis with BMI charts, pulmonary function tests or the simple act of buttoning our pants, how does one pinpoint improvements in brain fitness?

Is it about increasing your memory? Or is it about ramping up the speed at which you think through a problem? Is it about building verbal reasoning? Speeding the efficiency of task switching? Enhancing your ability to reason? Well, the answer is, all of the above.

So, having said all that, the next questions are obvious:

Where to start? What works best? What's right for me?

Of course, a physician who specializes in neuroscience can target a regime just for you, but a good starting point is to find a brain fitness approach that addresses several tasks at the same time. This is important because a government-sponsored study called ACTIVE found, in general, there was little to no transfer in skill between certain brain functions. For instance, just because you are doing exercises for memory enhancement, it doesn't mean you're increasing your skills for processing at the same time. So, what you may need is what I am calling cross-training for your brain.

Ironically, it appears one of the best methods is actually physical exercise. Researchers have shown just walking 45 minutes per day, three days a week, increases episodic memory, executive control functions along with multitasking and planning skills. Another important benefit of physical exercise is that it reduces stress levels, which in turn can lower cortisol levels, a stress hormone, which when elevated can decrease in memory function. In fact, chronic high concentration of cortisol can be toxic to brain cells, contributing to short-term memory loss. Moreover, a lifetime of high cortisol levels may be a primary contributor to Alzheimer's Disease (Cortisol and The Stress Connection, John R. Lee and Virginia Hopkins, Virginia Hopkins Health Watch, One-to-One Inc., 2009).

In other words, if you are really concerned about increasing your brain and cognitive fitness, a good place to begin is to check with your doctor and find ways to make exercise a consistent activity in your life. If you want to do crossword puzzles, terrific! But for the greatest benefit, I suggest that you do them while you're riding your stationary bike!

Help Yourself. Help Others.

For more by Victor Imbimbo, click here.

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