The latest cognitive neuroscience research reveals key ways to improve brain health in people of all ages and stages.
These discoveries are incredibly timely -- now, more than ever.
Brain health among military service members is being called into question and has risen to the forefront of our national discourse. Advanced reasoning skills in American students are falling behind those of other developed countries. Among healthy adults, cognitive brain performance peaks, on average, in our early 40s, and estimates suggest the number of those living with Alzheimer's will triple by 2050.
The multitude of factors that compromise brain function is costly at all levels of society -- from the individual to our nation as a whole. Fortunately, there is good news to guide how to urgently and immediately tackle these issues. New scientific protocols are identifying that brain systems can be strengthened and cognitive performance can be enhanced. The outcomes underscore the potential to mitigate losses from medical, psychological and neurological setbacks, across the lifespan, adding years to cognitive brain performance and improved real-life outcomes.
What does this mean? Put simply, people can recover brain function to some degree after traumatic injury; cognitive decline due to aging can be slowed; lifelong education can be protective, and social brain networks can be improved.
We have seen this firsthand at the Center for BrainHealth, part of The University of Texas at Dallas, through our interventional research protocols and programmatic offerings, specifically Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training -- or SMART, as we like to call it.
This program is based on more than 30 years of neuroscience research and equips participants with an essential toolkit to become strategic learners, deeper-level thinkers and innovation generators. The key is for participants to approach thinking differently -- not simply to memorize facts and information, but to work the brain to construct provocative thought-filled ideas and move away from surface-level, uninspired thinking. Instead, participants are challenged to think in themes, to abstract the essence from the deluge of data, to be engaged learners, and to challenge the status quo by creating new knowledge. This concerted cognitive effort pays off by strengthening connections and speeding up communication across broad-based brain regions.
To date, more than 36,000 people of all ages and conditions -- whether they are healthy, injured or currently debilitated by disease -- have completed the scientifically validated program. This includes those suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI), middle school students from various socioeconomic backgrounds, healthy aging adults as well as those suffering from cognitive decline in early stages of dementia, and so many more.
Our SMART program findings highlight growing evidence that much can be done to maximize our brain's thinking capacity and to ward off low achievement and cognitive decline. We know that students can learn higher-order critical reasoning skills in adolescence that will help them academically in high school, college, and life. And simple changes in a person's focus while thinking -- such as avoiding multitasking, delimiting distractions, grasping the big picture, and embracing the unknown -- can improve cognitive performance among older adults.
Each of us can take steps to improve our brain health immediately. There are easily adoptable habits we can build and small changes that we can all make to achieve better brain health.
Calibrate Mental Effort: We cannot give 'our all' to every to-do task on our list. Instead, we can improve our brain's capacity by regulating where we expend mental energy and effort, focusing major effort on strategic objectives rather than depleting mental energy on less important, easy tasks.
Cultivate Curiosity: It is easy to fall into a routine and become stagnant with our thinking. Our brains seek novelty and innovation, so we need to challenge ourselves to expand our knowledge, learn new skills and be curious by exploring new opportunities. Ask, "How can I add new ideas to this area?"
Be Collaborative: Part of being innovative is being collaborative and open to other's ideas and critiques. Our brain's thinking is narrowed when we primarily seek information that confirms our current thinking. Being open to broader perspectives strengthens our own brain's connections and expands our own thinking.
Here's one thing I know without a doubt: The majority of Americans have the chance to achieve better brain health.
This week is Brain Awareness Week, which provides an excellent opportunity to talk about this important topic and increase public awareness of the progress. We must close the gap between brain health discovery and translation so we can all reap the benefits of brain research. But the discussion has to move to action.
Each of us can play a pivotal part in spreading the word about the importance of brain research and its critical role in helping people lead healthier and more productive lives. And we need to do whatever we can to arm the public with the knowledge and information they need to make informed decisions about their health and to personally take the necessary steps to achieve better brain health.
As we do, we will certainly experience the benefits that come as a result of better brain health. Without brain health, we do not have health.