How to stay young, or cognitive reserve

A summary of findings from neuropsychology on how to stave off dementia.

Movement matters
Regular physical exercise in midlife, ages 40 to 60, showed evidence that exercise physically changes the brain (neuroscience geeks: People who had aerobic exercise at least three times a week showed an increase in the actual volume of the hippocampus, compared with controls who actually saw a loss of hippocampus volume over the same period. Hippocampal functioning is implicated in memory).

Work and social interaction matter
People who engaged in complex work that involved interacting with other people had lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, using complex problem-solving for cooperative efforts seems to be protective. Teamwork is better for your brain than solitary work. This finding holds for virtual teamwork as well.

Type of leisure time matters
People who engaged in more intellectually demanding leisure activities had lower rates of dementia (these activities included arts, music, reading, strategy games, and community service/volunteer work). This effect was more robust for women than men.

Everyday habits matter
– People who consume minimal sugar, avoid fast food, and follow a healthy diet (greens, legumes, fish, fruit, whole grains, nuts) on a regular basis have younger brains. 
– Excessive sitting is bad for your brain. Sitting for too long is directly linked to heart disease, obesity, depression, dementia, and cancer. More than that, it also changes certain neurons in the brain, for the worse. A study in the Journal of Comparative Neurology (2/2014) found that inactivity decreased structural plasticity (development of neural pathways) in the brain.
– Multitasking reduces brain efficiency. The amount of information we go through on an average day is astounding. The average American consumes about 34 gigabytes of data and information each day; an increase of over 350 percent over nearly three decades — according to a report from the University of California, San Diego. This constant sensory input includes emails, social media, talking to people, notifications, meetings, and texts.

A neuropsychology study at Stanford found that even a small piece of information can hinder focus. For instance, if you’re trying to concentrate on a task and you know an email is sitting unread in your inbox, it can reduce your effectiveness on an IQ-like cognitive test.

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