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What Does a Brain Want? Alvaro Fernandez and the SharpBrains Team Put Brain Fitness to the Test

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I hope you don't eat just one thing; I mean, lobster and chocolate layer cake are both outstanding taste treats, but a steady diet of either, or both? I don't think so... And if you only talk about one topic, or two, or three, your social life ain't goin' nowhere.

We crave variety, and—putting religious and metaphysical concerns aside—"we" pretty much are our brains.

Many have referred to the 21st century as the century of the brain. In the 20th century the average lifespan in the U.S. increased from 47 to 74, but research on the brain lagged behind. As lifespan increases this becomes more and more of a societal, and personal, concern.

You've probably heard, and maybe even followed, some of the advice you've heard on taking care of that very important three-pound organ. But, can you trust that advice? Dozens of authors have written popular books on the topic; scientists elucidate the field for us on television, in articles, and on YouTube. But, if hearing and reading about the brain doesn't actually help it function better, why spend all your time doing it?

May I recommend a book to cut through the chatter on the brain? The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age, by Alvaro Fernandez and Elkhonon Goldberg, with Pascale Michelon (new and expanded second edition, 2013). I discovered SharpBrains when the first edition of the book came out in 2009 and Mr. Fernandez came to speak at The New York Public Library. He delighted the crowd of library staff and some members of the public in the audience, and elucidated complicated concepts in an entertaining way. Alvaro begins by dispelling any idea that he is a brain expert; no, he is a businessman, but those he works with at the company he co-founded, SharpBrains, are all neuroscientists and cognitive scientists involved in research on the brain. The 2009 book provides a wide-ranging introduction to the field, focusing on neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change throughout life—and the best ways to make it happen as the research up to that time had indicated. The information is conveyed mostly in the precise words of experts, via 18 interviews with scientists who explore the products purporting to help the brain, and who share what has been shown to be helpful—or not—and those gray areas that still exist surrounding our gray matter. 

Two important studies in 2010, one by the BBC concluding that "brain training" doesn't work, and one by the NIH pronouncing that "Nothing Can Cure Alzheimer's Disease," captured public attention. Reading the popular take on this research in the media, many became skeptical that anything could help the brain.

Clearly SharpBrains had to look at and analyze these results, while incorporating other recent discoveries to bring us up to speed. Hence, a new and expanded version of the book. Rather than make declarations, they acknowledge that we're all standing on moving ground in this area, and everyone must be cautious about proclaiming any single regimen successful in the quest for brain health.

Again using interviews with scientists—combined with analysis—to best deliver information, specific strategies such as diet, exercise, leisure activities and managing stress are evaluated. In 2012, SharpBrains conducted their own market research study, sifting through the hundreds of competing products and comparing the few products that met the stringent criteria of: Research Momentum; Market Momentum; and, Results Seen.

My major take-away from this book: that our brains need variety. If you have done crossword puzzles all your life, doing more won't help your brain; what you need are activities and lifestyle changes that incorporate all the ingredients that make for a healthy brain. To illustrate, chapter 9, "How to Be Your Own Brain Fitness Coach," gives 10 vignettes of average people, male and female, ages 16-75, and discusses what changes each might make based on their unique situations; the missing puzzle pieces for them.

And that nagging question about whether Alzheimer's disease can be prevented... as of the publication of this book, evidence suggests that while we can't prevent the pathology from appearing at some point, we can indeed extend the length of time a brain stays healthy and well-functioning, helping preserve our independence and quality of life for several precious more years.

The book includes an appendix of 55 Brain Fitness Facts The first in the category, "The Top 3 Brains Facts" is There is not only one "It" in "Use It or Lose It." The brain is composed of a number of specialized units. Our life and productivity depend on a variety of brain functions, not just one. Hmmm... food for thought.

Reading this book, I learned about the clinical trials going on that will provide evidence to back up claims—or not. I went a step further and am now happily participating in a clinical trial studying the connection between physical fitness and brain activity (as measured by functional M.R.I.s). If the topic interests you, why don't you sign up for one as well? Check out ClinicalTrials.gov.

Here is Alvaro Fernandez, speaking to public and staff at the New York Public Library in 2013.

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