Train Your Brain to Improve Your Quality of Life

Humans are now living longer than before in our history. This has been largely due to the advances made within both medicine and technology. However, with this increased life expectancy, the burden and prevalence of chronic disease have increased significantly. Conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome and dementia have increased.

Not only do these conditions have a big impact on the quality of lives of those who have the conditions, they also have an impact on the lives of those close to the individual. How can we prevent these conditions and specifically what lifestyle factors can reduce the risk of these conditions?

A core principle of Hintsa Performance has always been to help people achieve a better life by optimising each of the 7 elements that constitute the Hintsa philosophy: Mental Energy, Recovery, Physical Training, Nutrition, General Health, Biomechanics and Core. Within these 7 areas, there are many different layers that can be addressed to improve the quality of life. Below, I’ll provide an insight into how we can improve the quality of life by increasing cognitive capacity (brain power) throughout the life span and thus prevent some chronic debilitating brain conditions.

The power of the brain

There is very strong research that unequivocally demonstrates that appropriate physical exercise programs can prevent, improve and reverse chronic disease. The basis of this training centers around supercompensation. This concept is based around the general premise that a physiological system is trained, a stress is induced, there is an immediate dip in performance (whilst recovery takes place) and finally an improved capacity for work/performance results. This is under the proviso that there are appropriate rest conditions. Such research and knowledge is well established.

What is less well known within the public domain is that there is conclusive research that is beginning to demonstrate that the supercompensation philosophy also applies to the brain. Such research is particularly exciting and is opening up new avenues and ideas on how to optimise, maintain and improve brain health.

In recent years there have been excellent advances made into research pertaining to how we can improve psychological wellbeing and in particular, preventing debilitating cognitive diseases such as dementia. Such research has used a multi-faceted approach, by using a diverse range of research methods and study designs, ranging from analysis of social demographics to more technologically advanced studies that image brain activity. The results of these studies have helped shape recommendations for lifestyle modifications throughout the lifespan including; Early Childhood, Adulthood, and Elderly Adults.

Early childhood

In 2007, researchers examined 33 identical Swedish twins, of which one twin had dementia and the other did not. Of interest to the researchers was the environmental causes that could have possibly caused dementia, in particular, educational levels. Of the non-demented twins, twelve left school at the earliest possible age, in contrast to the demented twins of which 25 left school at the minimum age. Such conclusive results point to the influence of education and more widely cognitive stimulation on dementia.

Adulthood

In 2006 German researchers studied the brains of German medical students who were studying for exams, three months before, during the exam period and then three months after. Of interest to the researchers was the thickness of the grey matter and hippocampus. This was measured via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). As a general note, the researchers found that the grey matter within the parietal cortex had actually increased during the 3-month study period. At the 3-month post exam follow-up, which was typically characterised by less learning and a reduction in study load, the cortex had maintained its level of grey matter and not regressed to the pre-study levels. Incredibly the hippocampus continued to grow throughout the 6-month study period. The hippocampus is directly implicated with dementia and memory recall.

Elderly adults

Verghese et al (2003) found that those people who completed leisure activities including reading, writing, hobbies, and games were more mentally sharper and at less risk of Alzheimer than those who did not. There is another dimension to the research that demonstrates a protective effect against dementia, that is not directly related to mental stimulations or challenges, that is; the strength of social networks. The results of a study conducted by (ref 15 chapter 5) concluded that an increase in the number of contacts with friends and family in 80-year-olds had a protective effect against Alzheimer.

Growth requires rest

It should be noted that many of the mental challenges within the various studies were seen as workable and achievable. When task difficulty exceeded cognitive ability, the results of the studies were not conclusive. Furthermore, as with physical training, appropriate rest is needed between the stimulation for growth to take place.

The field of neuroscience and social neuroscience continues to reveal that the influence of our environment and lifestyle does have a profound effect on our mental capacity. Similar to physical training and the results it has on the musculoskeletal system, appropriate mental stimulation and a conducive environment throughout the lifespan also illicit a training-like response. Continual appropriate challenging yet novel mental challenges, and a good social network, are all important in the prevention and reversal of dementia.

References:

  • Bennett, D.A., et al. (2006) ‘The effect of social networks on the relation between Alzeihmers disease pathology and level of cognitive function in old people: a longitudinal cohort study’. Lancet Neurology, 5(5), 406 – 12.
  • Draganski et al. (2006),  ‘Temporal and Spatial dynamics of Brain Structure changes during Extensive Learning’. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(23), 6314 -17.
  • Gatz, M., et al. (2007). ‘Accounting for the low relationship between education and dementia: a twin study’. Physiology and Behaviour, 92 (1-2), 232 – 7.
  • Verghese, J., et al. (2003). ‘Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly’. New England Journal of Medicine, 348 (25), 2508 – 16.

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