schematic illustration of the neuron on a black background

Brain games: jumping jacks for neurons

· Category: Blog, Brain Boosters, Longevity

I’ll start this post with a few tips and awe-inspiring brain facts to blow your mind (so to speak), then we’ll head to a cognitive gym class called Lumosity.

  • The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. Yes, that’s billion with a B. A neuron is a specialized cell that transfers information via electrical and chemical signaling. We want to keep our neurons happy and healthy so they can chat with each other, solve problems, and find lost reading glasses.
  • Nutrient-dense foods, exercise, yoga, meditation, and cognitive activity can stimulate the creation of new neurons throughout life. You’re never too old to improve your brain function or your neurological health. Play chess, do crossword puzzles, join Lumosity (more on that in a minute), skip, dance, ride a bike, and watch Jeopardy while balancing in tree pose.
  • Research suggests that yoga increases GABA levels. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. It’s the anti-anxiety, mellow-mood, everything’s groovy neurotransmitter. More is good, especially if you can boost your GABA levels in non-pharmacological ways.
  • Pull out your map and compass. Brain scans of elite London taxi drivers revealed a much larger hippocampus than in normal subjects. The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with memory retention and navigation. These taxi drivers have a detailed mental map of the convoluted London streets stored in their grey matter. That’s more evidence that the actual structure of the brain can change. This is called neuro-plasticity; changes in brain cells and the connections between them to encode new information. Beware, driving in London can cause severe stress. Breathe in, breathe out.
  • The human brain uses 20% of the body’s energy, but comprises only 2% of its mass and on average weighs about 3 pounds. You get a lot of bang for your buck in that little package. Fuel it well.
  • Exercise is linked to the growth of new brain cells. Yay! I want some new brain cells. Good ones. Ones that do calculus.
  • The human brain produces an average of 70,000 thoughts per day. How do they know that? Really.

Nature has given each of us a nice mix of genetic predispositions. Some good, some not-so-good. No genome (complete set of genetic material) is perfect. I’m guessing even Einstein had a few genetic variations from the shallow end of the gene pool. It’s not all about genes. In many cases, lifestyle trumps genetic influence.

So, how can we artfully navigate this maze called aging?

Let’s hedge our bets.

As mentioned above, start with a focus on healthy lifestyle behaviors—sound nutrition, stress reduction, exercise, quality sleep, personal goals, and positive relationships. Back in January of 2011, I added cognitive training to the list via Lumosity.

Disclaimer: I have nothing to do with Lumosity, other than I’m a paid subscriber to the program. They have no clue who I am (out of the 35 million-plus users) and I haven’t been given anything to endorse their training methods. If you access Google Scholar and search for scientific evidence that cognitive training works, you’ll find controversy. Yes it works, no it doesn’t. I’m on my own bandwagon (nutrition, exercise, yoga), not so much Lumosity’s.

Having said that, it works for me, even if it’s all in my mind (cognitive irony). Words are easier to retrieve, my spelling is better, I see editing mistakes quicker, I remember names more often—I just feel sharper and more focused. I’m a research nerd and if I went by the research on cognitive training alone, I’d be skeptical. Cognitive training is big money.

In a nutshell: it’s worth the money to me. At 63, I’m hedging my bets.

One interesting benefit from Lumosity training for me has been more enhanced peripheral vision and increased ability to concentrate and react. Because of that, my balance, coordination, and attention are better while mountain biking and telemark skiing. We ride single track on narrow trails in the dirt. Grass, rocks, trees, roots, ruts, and an occasional snake, deer, or other form of wildlife are part of the adventure. I know Lumosity has helped me stay in the game. The combination of preparing myself cognitively, getting out in nature with family and friends, breathing fresh air (chug, chug up hills), and exercising in a playful way is part of my longevity plan. It’s the same with telemark skiing; my field of vision is more complete. When you mountain bike or ski, you have to see the big picture so you can react to the terrain. You can’t look down at your ski tips or right in front of your bike. You have to take in as much information as possible, process it, and quickly make the right physical adjustments so you don’t fall and hurt yourself. High impact body slams at this age are not recommended. The older you get, the less room for error. Even though I’m not mountain biking or skiing at the same intensity I was twenty years ago, I want to keep it up. Lumosity is helping me do that.

Lumosity has a series of fun brain workouts, all design to train different areas of cognitive function. Here’s one of my favorite peripheral vision games. This image doesn’t give you much to go on, but it’s an “attention game.” At this point, I’ve advanced to lots of distractions. There are birds, decoys, and numbers to see and remember. The background is different with each round. That translates to rocks, roots, tree branches, and  changes in terrain in my mountain biking world. As you advance, it gets harder and harder.

Not into cold chairlifts or dusty trails? Lumosity’s “attention” games may enhance defensive driving skills. That alone might boost your longevity.

Eagle Eye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hedge your bets!

Onward,
Melissa

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