For years, scientists thought our brains lost as much as 30 percent of their neurons as we got older, an idea that led researchers to largely ignore the brain as it aged. After all, why waste time researching something that was going to decay on schedule no matter what we did?
Now, new research shows that, in fact, we keep most of our brain cells for as long as we live. This means that the quest for ways to maintain those cells is now being taken up in earnest. But as this idea has emerged, so has the hype. We are bombarded with ads and articles telling us to eat blueberries, drink red wine, do crossword puzzles. Does any of it work?
Luckily, science is beginning to sort out the beneficial from the bogus. And there are a few things that do make a difference.
Can specific foods help? The jury is still out. The problem is, with our relatively good diets we already get most of the nutrients we need. Not that science has given up. It’s true that foods that are high in antioxidants—like blueberries and red wine—are, in theory, good for brain repair. But it’s also true that we probably have to eat a barrowful of blueberries to make a real difference. So researchers are trying to develop a drug or pill that would give us that same boost. Meanwhile, eating a healthy, varied diet remains the best advice.
The current star in brain science research is exercise. The brain is much like the heart. It needs oxygen and blood flow. Not only does exercise pump blood through our brain’s blood vessels, but it also prompts the creation of new brain cells, even at older ages.
Scientists at Columbia University and elsewhere have watched the birth of new cells in the brains of animals and humans who have exercised vigorously. Although it’s still unclear what the new brain cells do, a leading neuroscientist, Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in San Diego, believes they help us better integrate and cope with the new—from ideas to places to people—and may even help ward off depression.
We now know that crossword puzzles are not enough. To keep our brains sharp, we need to move beyond just recalling information we know (the main activity with crossword puzzles) and instead push our brains to actively embrace the new, an effort that will create and nourish new brain connections. That means anything that gets us out of our comfort zones: making new friends, learning to play the cello, taking a new route to work, even confronting ideas and people you disagree with. To stretch our grown-up brains, we have to present them with “disorienting dilemmas”—concepts that challenge our view of the world, says one Columbia University Teachers College researcher.
By middle age, we’ve all developed millions of connected pathways in our brains. These well-worn paths can help us size up familiar situations and actually reach solutions faster than our younger peers. But if we always use the same routes to process information, our brains may not get the stimulation they need to flourish. We need to, as one brain scientist puts it, “shake up the cognitive” egg and force ourselves to seek in new directions.
Barbara Strauch is deputy science editor at the New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, available this month.