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Article No.: 09-6

Article Title: Brain Fitness - The Competitive Advantage

Author: Guest Columnist Pat Faust

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Our workforce is aging.  “The curve of early retirement is flattened out, and people are staying on the job longer,” says Neal Cutler, PhD, executive director of the Center on Aging of the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills, California.  A 2005 survey from Merrill Lynch found that 76% of baby boomers intend to work and earn in retirement.  What has been set up to accommodate the aging boomers in the workforce?  Wellness programs have been developed to address the physical, mental/emotional and stress effects that are taking a toll on older workers.  However, there has been little if any attention directed to the aging brain.  That is really an alarmingly low awareness level – because we are our brains. We protect institutional knowledge and the brain trust, but what happens with aging brains?

Of all the organs in our body, the brain is the most demanding and intriguing.  It has fooled even the most renowned neuroscientists.  Up until a few decades ago these scientists believed our brains were pliable, or could be shaped by learning only until early adulthood.  After that we had all the brain cells we were ever going to get.  As it turns out, we maintain the ability to grow new brain cells – neurogenesis – throughout our entire life.  We also have the ability to reshape out brain through learning – neuroplasticity – throughout our lives.  These findings have completely changed everything in relation to our perceptions about how the brain functions.

We definitely are at our cognitive peak in our twenties.  Cognitive decline starts on the slippery road of decline around age thirty.  The brain has such vast reserves that we don’t notice the losses we are sustaining until around the age of fifty.  This is when we start to notice a slight acceleration in cognitive decline.  It is then that we can’t find our keys; we skip introductions because we can’t remember names, we forget why we went to the grocery store and we better make a bee-line to the kitchen before we forget what it is that we went to get.  These are all normal memory lapses.  The processing speed of our brain slows down as we get older.  The brain of a sixty year old is two-to-three times slower than a twenty year old.  Neurochemical production slows down as we get older.  We are very dependent on Acetylcholine and Dopamine neurotransmitters for communication and memory function.  Acetylcholine is depleted in Alzheimer’s disease and Dopamine is depleted in Parkinson’s disease.

So what has the research revealed to give us hope?  The brain has the capacity to repair, reorganize and rebuild itself.  The key to this phenomenon is brain fitness.  There are several ways to achieve brain fitness at any age:  through nutrition, physical exercise and brain exercise.  Each of these components can have a profound effect on the brain but together the synergistic effect can reverse cognitive decline.

Nutrition

What is good for the heart is good for the brain.

Omega – 3 fatty acids are the rock stars of nutrition for brain health.  DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in cell membranes.  The human body produces DHA but not enough – so we need to get DHA from outside sources.  Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as salmon.  It is also in walnuts and flax seed.  Of course it is available in supplement form.  Research indicates that Omega – 3 might have the ability to reverse cognitive decline.  It is important to eat fatty fish at least once a week.

Our brains are extremely vulnerable to oxidative damage.  Antioxidants in foods and vitamins are crucial to good brain health.  The vitamins high in antioxidants are C, E and beta-carotene.   Vitamin B12 becomes more critical to brain health as we get older.  In fact, a person totally depleted in B12 can show signs of delirium.  Vitamin B12 is found in protein based foods.  Vitamin D is necessary for cognitive functioning.  Red wine has powerful antioxidant properties and contains a nutrient called Resveratol.  Research indicates that Resveratol has the ability to stop plaque formation from occurring in Alzheimer’s disease.  Although this research is still in animal studies it is showing great promise. 

Physical Exercise

A controlled research study revealed that participants exercising for at least 45 minutes a day/ three times a week had the ability to hold off Alzheimer’s disease up to 32% (Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan. 2006).  Through functional MRIs it was shown that physical exercise stimulated cell growth within the hippocampus – center of learning and memory.  These results are far more exciting than any of the medications that are on the market today.  Aricept, Nameda and others slow down the progression of the symptoms of the disease.  Physical exercise alone has better outcomes than any of these medications.

Brain Exercise

The adage is – “Use it or lose it”.  The question is – Use what or lose what?  There is some controversy over this old adage of use it or lose it.  We have a master pathway in our brain.  It is here where most of our mental functions fall.  It is our auto-pilot.  So, when we do a crossword puzzle – it falls into our master pathway.  We are not challenging the rest of our brain.  We are not lighting up all of the rest of the machinery.  We are not using it.  So what do we have to do?  In order for the brain to benefit from activities and exercise – it has to be challenged.  Brain fitness activities have to push the brain to do things it has never done before.  For example: challenge your brain to pick out the cello from a classical musical composition; learn to juggle;  learn a new language.  We have more brain cells than there are stars in the galaxy – it is time to start using them – so we don’t lose them.

Brain fitness involves speed of processing, getting back working memory, improving executive function and many other functions.  Software developers have teamed with neuroscientists to bring brain fitness products to the marketplace.  Nintendo opened the floodgates a few years ago with their Brain Age program.  Since then many different software products have been introduced to the market.  Happy Neuron is an on-line subscription based product consisting of 28 different computer game exercises focusing on a number of brain functions including memory, attention, language, visual-spatial skills and logic.  Lumosity is also an on-line product addressing the same domain areas.  MindFit is developed by CogniFit.  Their programs are designed to boost cognitive skills including short-term memory, reaction times, recall and eye-hand coordination.  Posit Science, out of San Francisco, has two programs on the market right now: The Brain Fitness Program, an auditory program that increases auditory processing speed by 131% and 10 years average improvement in memory; and Cortex with InSight a visual program that has shown a 300% faster visual processing speed and a 200% larger useful field of view.  The programs by Posit Science have been heavily researched and all reported statistics are evidenced-based.

Why should companies, organizations and the corporate world be paying attention to brain fitness?  Up until now there has been virtually no attention directed to brain health within the parameters of wellness in the corporate setting.  There has been no thought to corporate training as far as mental acuity is concerned.  However, the aging workforce is going to force a reevaluation of this entire area.  Cognitive issues are going to be brought to the forefront especially in high risk jobs.  People 55 and over are expected to make up 23% of the workforce in 2016.  Having employees who are cognitively fit becomes a bottom line issue.  Older workers have institutional knowledge from years of experience.  Capitalizing on that by boosting memory and mental processing speed through brain exercises and you can significantly improve performance standards.  Getting the most from a mature workforce translates into a competitive advantage.

Howard Newman, sixty years old and CEO of Pine Brook Road Partners, a private equity firm, invested in the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program.  He had specific reasons for turning to brain fitness:  he wanted to increase his working vocabulary; he wanted to sharpen his ability to pay better attention to oral presentations;  finally, he wanted to be mentally stronger.  He accomplished all of these goals and found that his softball skills also improved!  After his successes he included his office staff in the programs and allowed them to do the exercises during office hours. (CNBC, February 2009)

As these testimonials become more mainstream, brain fitness will be as much a part of corporate wellness programs as physical fitness programs are now.  Fit bodies, fit brains – that will be the picture of tomorrow’s workforce.

For questions or comments, contact: Patricia Faust, MGS, LNHA, Corporate Gerontologist, E-mail: pcfaust@netscape.net, phone 812-637-0989.

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References:
Bazaitis, A. (2008) The workforce landscape – graying but gritty. Aging Well 1 (4) p16.
Frauenheim, E. (Jan.2008). Special report: training and hr technology – retrain the brain. Workforce Management. 19-23.
Jarvis, R. (Feb.2009). Healthy Horizon: Brain Exercise. CNBC.
Larson, E; Wang, L.; Bowen, J.; McCormick, W.; Teri, L.; Crane, P.; and Kukull, W. (Jan,2006).  Exercise is associated with reduced for incident dementia among Persons 65 years of age and older. Annals of Internal Medicine. 144 (2) 73-81.