Today’s New York Times contains a very good opinion piece about the benefits of physical exercise for maintaing and improving brain health, by Sandra Aamodt, editor-in-chief of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wong, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton.
There is good evidence that exercise can slow age-related cognitive decline. Specifically, it is known to improve the executive brain functions which control other cognitive processes, and which begin to decline in one’s 70s. Executive function is better in elderly people who have remained athletic throughout their lives than in others who were less active.
It is also known that environmental enrichment improves the mental function of experimental animals. For example, rats given toys or raised in a cage with other animals learn new tasks more easily than animals raised without toys or alone. These findings have direct implications for humans – a new study shows that socializing has positive effects on cognitive performance.
On the other hand, the evidence that brain training can slow age-related cognitive decline is lacking. Repetition of the types of tasks given in brain training exercises does improve one’s performance of those specific tasks, but does not necessarily lead to more general cognitive improvement.
In their article, Aamodt and Wong give short thrift to the hugely successful brain training industry. It is quickly – but democratically – dismissed in the second paragraph as being “inspired by”, rather than based on, real science. To maintain brain health, they advise joining a gym, going for a brisk walk or meeting friends.