Have you had your brain workout today?

We hear a lot about the importance of exercising your brain — chiefly, as a way of minimizing your chances of getting Alzheimer’s Disease, or at least delaying its onset.

But can brain exercise actually be systematized? Can it be organized and planned in such a way that it doesn’t only fend off future problems, but actually improves performance now? Is there such a program? How do you go about it?

To get the answers to these questions, 50Plus.com conducted an exclusive interview with Dr. Bernard Croisile, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of the Neuropsychology Department at the Neurological Hospital in Lyon, France. Dr. Croisile has an international reputation for his work on aging and cognition. He is also co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Happy Neuron, which has developed a program of online cognitive training.

Some of Happy Neuron’s games are now featured on 50Plus.com.

“It’s absolutely true that our cognitive training program can improve performance,” Dr. Croisile told 50Plus.com. “Ideally, you should exercise two or three times a week, at 45 minutes per session.” The ideal ‘workout’ should include exercises that address different aspects of brain performance. The Happy Neuron program, for examples, has different games that deal with memory, attention, language, executive function (decision-making), and visual-spatial relationships.

“What we’re dealing with,” Dr. Croisile explained, “is the number of connections within the brain. These connections can be reduced by aging, or destroyed by disease. As the number of connections diminishes, brain functionality is impaired. But we’ve learned that cognitive training can actually create new connections. These connections, or networks, are called the cognitive reserve. The more connections, the stronger the network and the higher the level of performance.”

Brain exercise has a second important benefit, Dr. Croisile told 50Plus.com — it can actually create new neurons. Neurons are the “building blocks” of the nervous system, specialized cells that transmit information. “Scientists used to believe that it was impossible for the brain to create new neurons,” Dr. Croisile said. “But recent studies have shown that this is not true — the brain actually can generate new neurons.”

So a consistent program of brain “workouts” can help create new neurons, as well as strengthen the connections between the neurons. Net result: better brain performance now, and a better chance of reducing the likelihood of Alzheimer’s Disease, or delaying its onset.


The best brain workout

The optimum workout program should have plenty of variety, Dr. Croisile said. “If you focus on just one area, you soon become skilled in that area but this means you are stimulating only one network. Let’s say you’re good at Sudoku — nothing wrong with that, but if you limit your brain exercise to Sudoku only, you’ll just keep stimulating that one limited network that helps you be a winner at Sudoku. To really be effective, you have to ‘work out’ the different areas of the brain that deal with different challenges — memory, attention, language, etc. That’s why our program integrates a number of different exercises. And, just as with physical workouts, we have a carefully phased program, with different skill levels and mechanisms for measuring and tracking performance. ”

Dr. Croisile noted that variety is an important brain-boosting element in all experiences, not just brain exercises. “That’s one of the reasons travel is so beneficial,” he said. “When you travel, you see new things, you hear new languages, you’re forced to deal with new circumstances. All of this is very healthy for your brain.”

Overall fitness and health is also important to the brain, Dr. Croisile noted. In fact, better brain health should be added to the list of benefits of regular physical activity and exercise programs.

50Plus.com is delighted to be featuring some of the most popular Happy Neuron games, and we invite our readers to try them and give us your feedback. We will also be keeping regular contact with Dr. Croisile, so that we can update our readers on the latest new findings in the exciting and fast-developing field of cognitive training.

Click here to play Countdown.
Click here to play Split Words.
Click here to play Sleight of Hand.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jacob Wackerhausen

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