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4 Ways to Exercise Your Brain as You Age
By Camille Su，Health 1+1| Nov 18 2022
By Camille Su，Health 1+1
Nov 18 2022
The human brain is still a mystery, but there is one thing scientists are certain about. That is, this complicated organ can still function well as we age. And there are ways to enhance and mold the brain’s agility and functions.
The Brain Shrinks With Age but Cranial Nerve Activation Is More Important
Have you noticed that people of the same age have different memory skills?
Besides memories, a person’s ability to think, reason, communicate, and solve problems is also related to one’s cognition. Cognitive ability does not necessarily decline with age.
A healthy human brain contains tens of billions of specialized neuron cells that process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. 
Unlike many relatively short-lived cells in the body, neurons can last for an extended period of time through self-maintenance and repair. During this process, neurons continuously adjust or reshape their synaptic connections—the connections through which neurons communicate with other neurons and receive stimuli. Even adult brains can generate new neurons (neurogenesis).
Remodeling of synaptic connections and neurogenesis is important for memory, learning, and possibly brain repair.
A healthy brain shrinks to a certain degree during the aging process, but it does not lose a large number of neurons. However, in Alzheimer’s patients, their neurons are mostly damaged and eventually stop functioning, thus experiencing cognitive decline.
Pei-Ning Wang, professor of neurology at Yangming University and director of the Dementia Treatment and Research Center at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan, pointed out a myth about the brain―the bigger the brain, the better the memory and cognition. He said neuronal activity and neural connections are more important than brain size.
As we age, the brain also undergoes normal aging.
The human brain shrinks every year after our 30s and 40s, and it shrinks at a rate of about 5 percent each decade after 40. Between the ages of 60 and 70, its shrinkage rate will further increase. 
Pei-Ning Wang explained that normal brain volume reduction has no correlation with human intelligence. What determines cognitive ability is whether the neurons are active and whether the connections between neurons are good.
A brain could have a large number of neurons, but if the neurons rarely function and are not well connected to one another, one’s memory and brain agility would not be good. On the contrary, when the brain neurons are highly active and well connected, the brain can still function well despite its age.
Moreover, the brain shrinks faster if the neuronal activity is low and neural connections deteriorate, similar to a 40-year-old woman with 70-year-old-looking wrinkles on her face.
Factors That Cause the Brain to Degenerate Faster
The accelerated aging of the brain may be caused by some diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular diseases. Poor blood circulation can lead to vascular sclerosis and brain inflammation, and in turn, damage the cerebrovascular system. Smoking and drinking can also cause chronic diseases and harm the brain.
Depression, a common mental disorder, can also speed up brain degeneration if left untreated.
Car accidents, boxing, American football, and other sports that cause head injuries can damage the nerve cells in the brain and loosen neural connections.
Not using the brain regularly, living a sedentary lifestyle, and performing little physical activity can all reduce the brain’s functions. Doing little exercise will affect blood circulation and blood oxygenation, which is detrimental to neural regeneration. Pei-Ning Wang said that exercise itself can stimulate the secretion of nerve growth hormone and increase the speed and quantity of nerve regeneration.
Unhealthy habits can affect the brain’s health, as well.
“One of the worst (brain-damaging) habits is watching television,” said Joan Zeng, a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
According to three studies in 2021, moderate to high amounts of television watching in midlife is associated with smaller gray matter volume later in life. Gray matter contains most of the neuronal cell bodies. 
After years of follow-up, researchers found that middle-aged adults who watched television moderately or regularly had a 6.9 percent decline in cognitive function over 15 years, compared with those who never or rarely watched television.
Ryan Dougherty, a postdoctoral fellow in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who led the study, noted that an average increase in television viewing time by one hour was linked to a decrease in gray matter volume of about 0.5 percent.
While these studies concluded that regular television viewing was not significantly associated with a higher risk of dementia, they also found that exercises did not seem to alter the negative effects of regular television viewing on the brain’s cognitive function.
Why is watching television so bad for the brain? There are two reasons: watching television makes people sedentary, and the brain does not need to think too much. Even if you have healthy habits and don’t smoke or drink alcohol, your brain will get worse gradually while watching television.
Joan Zeng said that when people watch television, their brains are being fed with messages in a passive manner. The elderly should turn off the television and go out to chat with others. This is one of the easiest ways to maintain brain health.
Brain Plasticity Can Occur at Any Age
If you frequently watch television, is it too late to take care of your brain?
“Actually, the brain is adaptable, regardless of its age,” Pei-Ning Wang said. The brain has high plasticity compared to other organs. Whether it is a brain injury or a stroke, the brain’s function can improve through rehabilitation.
The brain is constantly adjusting while learning. since birth and throughout one’s life. During adulthood, the brain continues to make adjustments and connections based on our daily experiences, and through things that we see, hear, and learn.
The hippocampus, located deep in the temporal lobe, plays an important role in learning and short-term memory retention. It is also an area where cranial nerve regeneration is relatively active.
A study found that the hippocampus of London taxi drivers is relatively large. In order to obtain a London taxi driver’s license, students spend 3 to 4 years learning the complex streets of London―more than 60,000 streets, including one-way lanes and turn restrictions, and more than 100,000 important places and landmarks. The reinforcement learning resulted in more neuronal regeneration and connection in their hippocampus. 
Pei-Ning Wang pointed out that London taxi drivers have to use their brains to memorize these routes every day, which is more helpful in activating the brain than listening to navigation instructions.
The research result is encouraging―even in adulthood, we can still stimulate the brain by learning things to achieve positive changes in the brain. And there are things we can do to promote neuronal regeneration and connection.
1. Aerobic exercises
Aerobic exercises such as jogging, brisk walking, swimming, and dancing can increase the volume of the hippocampus and the brain.
A study about the effects of aerobic exercises on brain volume in older adults found that cardiovascular exercise helped prevent the degeneration of brain tissues. Researchers believe that aerobic exercises can promote the growth of new capillaries in the brain, increase the connections and number of neurons, and delay neurological decline in the elderly. 
Pei-Ning Wang recommended dancing because it is a combination of mental and physical activities, where one needs to memorize the dance steps and learn the movements at the same time.
2. Static activities that involve thinking
Although static activities, such as solving sudoku, reading, and playing chess, do not require physical movement, they are better than watching television. These types of static brain activities help maintain cognitive function and reduce the likelihood of dementia. 
3. Alter between dynamic and static activities
Doing housework, gardening, and traveling all require mental and physical strength. Let’s take travel as an example. The body and mind are involved in planning a trip, selecting trip activities, organizing travel information, and completing the trip.
4. Develop broad interests
Joan Zeng said that different areas of the brain can be stimulated and fully activated, similar to how a balanced diet offers various nutrients. Therefore, in addition to doing housework, exercising, and reading, you can also listen to music, sing, and enjoy performing arts. The entire brain is active when watching a performance that includes music, singing, dancing, and drama.
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