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Brain Health: Myths Versus Reality

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

You’ve no doubt heard plenty of stories about how to keep your brain healthy and boost memory. A recent article on AARP’s website explored this subject and distinguished between myth and fact. Here are some the highlights.

Myth: Brain aging is inevitable.

Although the brain does shrink with age, exercise has been shown to increase brain mass. Researchers at the University of Pittsburg and the University of Illinois asked 120 older, relatively inactive people to either walk or stretch three times a week. The researchers then took MRIs of the subjects’ brains. It took one year for the walkers to increase the size of their hippocampus by two percent, in essence reversing the shrinkage associated with one to two years of aging. In addition, people who exercise regularly may also have less amyloid (plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease).

Myth: Supplements can boost your memory.

Substances like ginkgo biloba are often lauded for their cognitive benefits, but test results have been inconclusive. And while vitamin E has been shown to slow cognitive decline, high doses are required and can pose health risks like increased bleeding. Eating fish, on the other hand, seems to be a better strategy. Research shows that the more fish you consume (up to three servings per week), the lower the risk of cognitive impairment. In a study at UCLA, people over the age of 65 who ate as little as one meal a week featuring fish showed a higher volume of gray matter in the hippocampus, an important memory center in the brain.

Myth: Crossword puzzles increase brain power.

Repeating the same basic activities, such as doing crossword puzzles every day, isn’t challenging enough to spark new neural connections in the brain and make it more powerful. However, learning something new can lead to new neural connections. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas asked older people to participate in a variety of activities, and only those who learned a new skill, like quilting, experienced significant brain gains. In a recent Swedish study, brain size increased among older folks who learned a new language.

Myth: You can't stop Alzheimer's disease.

While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, research suggests that eating well, staying engaged with others, reducing stress and stimulating your brain with new activities can slow the onset of symptoms by several years. In a study by Rush University in Chicago, making just one change—eating plenty of fruits and vegetables while consuming less meat and sweets—can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia by as much as 53 percent.

Myth: Brain games make you smarter.

70 of the world's leading brain scientists released a statement in 2014 rejecting the idea that computerized brain training can improve cognitive powers. Until we know more, you are better off using proven bran boosters such as meditation and socializing with friends.

Myth: Your mind gets worse with age.

Actually, older brains have some advantages. Why? The network of fibers that allow nerve cells to talk to each other gets richer as brains age. This results in older people relying more on both sides of their brains than younger people do, which could account for the wisdom and emotional balance that seem to increase with age. In addition, with the brain's right and left hemispheres getting more integrated, creative potential increases. Older adults also benefit from superior "crystallized" intelligence, including the skills, experience and knowledge gained over a lifetime.

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