Do you ever do the ostrich when you are presented with new information? Do you figuratively bury your head in the sand to avoid reading the article that challenges you to save for retirement or to exercise your way to better health?
I get it. You can almost feel the judgment leaping from the page. As you try to grasp the new information, you’re thinking, “Those paragons of virtue will never know what it is like to be a mere mortal.” Change is difficult, and even moreso when you are beating yourself up at the same time. It’s not uncommon to do this, however: In late October, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to behavioral economist Richard Thaler, whose lifetime research has acknowledged that most people make conscious decisions that are not in their own best interest.
The media buzz surrounding Thaler was serendipitous for me. At the time, I was trying to reconcile my feeling of frustration as I reviewed the research linking exercise with brain power. I wondered who would not exercise if they really knew how much better everything, especially their brain, would work. The studies have conclusively shown that to improve your thinking skills, you must move. For me, personally and professionally, as I care for our aging community, I feel discouraged that more people act as Thaler predicts. They act as humans and not as the rational classical economist predicts.
Classical economic theory supports the assumption that everyone would look to maximize utility (an economist term for happiness) from good health over a sedentary lifestyle that is wrought with systemic diseases. But people don’t maximize utility in this way. So to keep our bodies, especially our brains, at peak performance, how do we nudge people in the right direction?
Is it, in fact, safe to assume that collectively we got the memo about exercise and its effect on the brain?
Exercise reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It also reduces your risk for more than a dozen types of cancer. Deep down, we all know exercise counteracts the toxic effects of stress and improves the quality of sleep. But are we making the parallel with brain health? Are we aware that exercise is cognitive candy?
When you meet those “super-agers,” the ones who seem about 20 years younger than most of their peers, what impresses you the most? Researchers have noticed that the people who are aging successfully also seem to be mentally alert. This led researchers to compare the cognitive abilities of someone in top physical condition to the those in poor physical condition.
Exercise has been associated with an astonishing elevation in cognitive performance compared with those who are sedentary. Test subjects scored better in just about every mental test possible:
Long-term memory tests
Tests measuring attention
Fluid intelligence (improvising off previously learned material)
Imaging studies of the human brain have shown that exercising increases blood volume in the hippocampus, the region of the brain deeply involved in memory formation. On a molecular level, exercise stimulates the brain’s most powerful growth factor, BDNF. This protein is responsible for the formation of new neurons, or brain cells, and increases the connectivity of existing neurons. So the idea that once you reach your 20s you’re stuck with the brain cells that you’ve got is a myth.
So how much exercise do you have to do? As it turns out, not that much to see some benefits.
Aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, two times per week, cuts in half the risk of general dementia and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by 60 percent. Truly, the best news is that the benefits of exercise are dose dependent. The more you do, the greater the benefits.
The research of behavioral economists has influenced governments and business on everything from 401(k) contribution defaults to organ donation. With the knowledge that we don’t instinctively act in our own best interest, we need to push ourselves in the right direction, knowing that movement is the key to brain power.
We cannot ignore the millions of years that shaped the human brain, and yet we stuff ourselves in classrooms and cubicles for eight hours at a time. Perhaps one day we will see boardrooms and classrooms with treadmills instead of desks.
The human brain evolved under conditions of almost constant motion. Our prehistoric ancestors walked roughly 12 miles per day. Our unique cognitive skills were forged in the furnace of physical activity. We were not the strongest on the planet, but we developed the strongest brains — the key to our survival.
Last month, after participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, it occurred to me that in addition to showing my support for the researchers, caregivers, families and patients of this devastating disease, I was also taking these very literal steps to decrease my own risk of cognitive decline. JN
Bob Roth is managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions.