Studies reveal that brain function can improve by practicing a selection of brain protection strategies.
It’s easy enough to joke about brain drain as our hair begins to show salt and pepper, and our joints develop wear and tear. But emerging research is shredding that assumption, showing that our gray matter is remarkably resilient particularly the brains working memory that’s so vital to enjoying daily life.
By working memory, I’m referring to a cognitive skill that’s mainly controlled by the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Think of it as the brains conductor, crucial to pulling together an orchestra of information from different regions that range from the emotional centers to long-term knowledge. Working memory is what helps you during a job interview, when you must quickly spout key details about the company and show how they relate to your skills. In the classroom, students use working memory to connect new information with their existing knowledge.
Unlike an individual’s IQ, which declines with age, our working memory doesn’t suffer to nearly the same degree. An encouraging study that I co-authored assessed working memory in nearly 1,100 people ages 5 to 80 years old. Participants in their 30s scored the highest, but there was no significant drop-off, according to the findings published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology in 2013. In fact, the performance of those in their 60s was similar to those in their 20s. So no age-related excuses will hold up, especially since some brain protection strategies can feel more like fun than work. The following are a few to try out:
Eat some dark chocolate: Yes, you can indulge in limited amounts. Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, naturally occurring antioxidant compounds that appear to help protect working memory in part by improving blood flow, according to a 2009 report in the journal Circulation. Other less fat-laden sources of flavonoids include green tea, parsley, red wine and fruity dessert wines, such as blueberry.
Learn a new language: This challenges the brain to stretch, starting with learning a new set of vocabulary and grammatical rules. Then you have to incorporate your new tongue twisting words, building upon your existing language knowledge.
Stay e-connected: Social media sites, and Facebook specifically, appear to bolster working memory, according to another study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior in 2012. It may be because active users constantly absorb, process and reshuffle incoming bits of information as they keep up with loved ones. YouTube didn’t appear to have the same effect, perhaps because its more passive.
Log on for learning: While research is mixed regarding the working memory benefits of computer-based brain games, there is some indication in my own research that these games could boost some key learning skills, such as verbal ability and working memory. In addition, video games that focus on strategy appear to help brain function, as they require a mix of planning, concentration and problem solving. Free online brain games testing memory, language and problem-solving skills are available at aarp.org.
As you go through life, continue to look out for these types of new opportunities and experiences as ways to guard against falling into mental ruts. Enjoy some antioxidants along the way. Hopefully the improved brain function that results will pay you back for many years to come.
Tracy Alloway, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida. The developer of the internationally recognized Alloway Working Memory Assessment, she has conducted extensive research on brain health and working memory and has written six books, including The Working Memory Advantage: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster.