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Train (Your Brain) Like An Olympian

In the near future, we fully expect to have comprehensive training programs for the brain -- similar to the training programs used by our Olympic athletes -- to get and keep our minds in peak condition throughout life.
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Women walking on sidewalk
Women walking on sidewalk

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games are just a few weeks away and our nation's greatest athletes are making their final push to prepare their minds and bodies to compete on the world's stage.

We hear a lot about the physical and mental components of competition like this, and understandably so - both are important in their own way and absolutely critical to an Olympian's success.

According to the latest Center for BrainHealth research, both components are also critical to improving and maintaining our brain health and building brain resilience as each type of exercise produces distinct brain benefits.

Results reinforce the importance of healthy lifestyle habits that exercise both the mind and body, to maximize our brain's potential throughout life.

For the study, a group of 36 sedentary adults ages 56-75 years were randomized into two different groups where they received either cognitive or physical training. Neurocognitive, physiological, and MRI data were taken before, during and after training.

Group A received Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), a manualized brain training developed at the Center for BrainHealth. The training focuses on three executive functions: strategic attention (prioritizing brain resources); integrative reasoning (synthesizing information at a deeper level); and innovation (encouraging fluid thinking, diverse perspective-taking, and problem solving). The best way I can think to explain this type of exercise is to ask you to think like a reporter. By that I mean to synthesize the message and expand to a broader audience.

Healthy adults who participated demonstrated positive changes in executive brain function as well as a 7.9 percent increase in global brain flow with regional increases in the frontal cortex (our brain's reasoning and decision-making center).

This is huge! If a pill achieved these results, the drug would be wildly sought after and prescribed. Consider that we can lose 1-2 percent in global brain blood flow every decade, starting in our 20s and that decrease is associated with declines in cognition. To see almost an 8 percent increase in brain blood flow in the cognitive training group may be seen as regaining decades of brain health since blood flow is linked to neural health. Many adults without dementia experience slow, continuous and significant age-related changes in the brain, specifically in the areas of memory and executive function - so finding ways to reverse these changes are critically important.

Meanwhile, Group B engaged in aerobic exercise. Participants completed three, 60-minute sessions per week that included five minutes of warm-up and cool down with 50 minutes of either walking on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike while maintaining 50-75 percent of maximum heart rate.

This group showed significant improvement in immediate and delayed memory performances that were not seen in the cognitive training group. Additionally, exercisers with improved memory performance also showed higher cerebral blood flow in the bilateral hippocampi, an area underlying memory function and particularly vulnerable to aging and dementia.

The takeaway is mind-boggling, truly. To embrace the fact that we can enhance our brain function by our physical and mental activities is welcome news since we are living longer lives. Indeed both aerobic activity and reasoning training are valuable, readily accessible and inexpensive tools that give our brain a boost in very different ways. The key, now, is to figure out how to best unite these training protocols for the highest health returns starting early and continuing into late life.

In the near future, we fully expect to have comprehensive training programs for the brain -- similar to the training programs used by our Olympic athletes -- to get and keep our minds in peak condition throughout life.

Future trials are needed to further develop and test such neuroprotective programs, but thanks to this study, we are well on our way.