How Do We Keep Our Brains Fit?
Author: Thorsten Rienth
We get tired, have trouble concentrating, or miss something important. If we’re not fully focused at work, mistakes can happen. The good news: We can take countermeasures to keep our brains fit.
Sometimes, it can be just a simple switch in digits that causes major financial losses. At other times, a moment of inattention when operating a machine can lead to injury. Or we get so lost in multitasking that, in our haste, we make the wrong decision. Such situations in the working world are human – but we don’t have to tempt fate.
The number of synapses can be increased
At birth, a baby’s brain is equipped with about 100 billion neurons. Between 10,000 and 100,000 of these neurons die over the course of a lifetime. Basically, our most complicated organ loses efficiency every day. The ability to multitask decreases. Memory decreases. Stress resilience decreases. But at work, of all things, the responsibility of our tasks usually increases with age.
The good news is that the death of thousands of neurons can be counteracted. “The sheer number of neurons is only partially critical for our mental performance,” explains DEKRA occupational medicine specialist Mascha Manegold, MD. “The other part depends on the efficiency of how the neurons work together.”
Synapses, however, are essential. As the connection between two nerve cells, they ensure the transmission of information. “Unlike the cells themselves, we can increase the number of synapses through targeted training – and thus improve our brain performance,” Manegold explains. The brain grows with its tasks, he says, and makes fewer mistakes. It is often said that the brain can be trained like a muscle.
Targeted training clearly improves brain performance
A large number of international studies confirm this connection between cognitive training and increased brain performance. One of the best-known is the long-term study ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) led by the US New England Research Institute (NERI). Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Pennsylvania State University were also involved.
Over a period of ten years, scientists compared the mental fitness of seniors. To start, the group engaged in “brain jogging” for several weeks. The control group did not. In terms of processing speed and memory, the improvement in brain performance, ranging from about 49 to 62 percent, was truly remarkable (1). The trend continues for years after the training period – albeit with slowly decreasing effect.
The saying also applies to the human brain: If you rest, you rust
Manegold is not surprised. After all, the saying also applies to the human brain: If it rests, it rusts. Unused synapses regress and the three-dimensional network of nerve cells shrinks. As a result, brain performance decreases again.
The doctor points to brain jogging apps that are now often available free of charge in app stores. “The games are really fun even for me as an adult.” Just ten to fifteen minutes a day suffice for noticeable improvements. It’s all in the mix: Logic puzzles, Sudokus, brainteasers, Memory card games, word searches, or crossword puzzles. Learning foreign languages also acts like a fertilizer for the growth of new synapses.
From the physician’s point of view: Paying full attention to the training is essential. Do not watch a movie at the same time. Do not practice in a crowded subway. “Then the brain retains information faster and better.” Besides that, there are a few other simple things to keep in mind to get your tasks done with full concentration: sufficient and restful sleep, a balanced diet, regular breaks, and a little exercise at work every now and then.
Oxygen-rich blood in the brain facilitates the formation of new synapses
Speaking of which, let’s hop over to Great Britain, where a review study (2) with around 4,500 subjects examined the effect of exercise on brain performance. People who exchange nine minutes of sitting for intensive physical activity significantly improve their working memory. According to the study, the effect is strongest in planning and organizational processes – and independent of demographic factors and the usual lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption or smoking. The scientific explanation: A high pulse pumps more oxygen-rich blood into the brain. This makes it easier for the organ to form new synapses.
Unfortunately, the study also proved the opposite. If someone replaces eight minutes of intense physical activity with six minutes of light activity or seven minutes of sleep, cognitive abilities immediately decrease.