How old are you when your brain is at its best? More importantly, how do you stay performing at the peak of your mental ability for as long as possible? The most important lessons for a fit brain.
'Someone who has not made his major contribution to science before the age of 30 will not do so after that.' Was signed: Albert Einstein. Now Einstein could easily say that: he experienced his 'miracle year' in 1905, when he was 26. In that year, he wrote no fewer than four scientific papers that would permanently change physics.
But are other people also at their best before the age of 30? In other words, where is man's mental peak? And, more importantly, how do you keep performing at that peak for as long as possible?
Your brain isn't "finished" until you're 25
One thing seems certain: before the age of 25, at least, you haven't reached your peak. Because your brain isn't "finished" until around that age. Most areas of your brain are already fully developed before then, Erik Scherder explains. He is professor of clinical neuropsychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU).
The areas that determine your motor abilities? Those are finished by the time you're four, for example. But the prefrontal cortex responsible for functions like planning, impulse control and decision making? That one is ready last, roughly around age 25. Scherder: 'And that which is ready last, declines first. Last in, first out.' That doesn't happen immediately at age 25, but Einstein's words do seem to contain a grain of truth.
Your reaction time deteriorates from age 30.
You perform measurably less in several areas after age 30, such as your reaction speed. And in doctoral research at the VU in 2012, it was found that people between the ages of 40 and 60 already have measurably more difficulty with complex cognitive tasks than people between 25 and 35.
According to cognitive psychologist Guido Band of Leiden University, so-called 'fluid intelligence' also deteriorates quite early. 'This involves reasoning with abstract concepts, not immutable knowledge.' For example: you are shown a row of numbers and you have to reason out what the next number is. 'In this, you already see significantly lower scores when people are over 30.'
Life experience is also very important.
Now there's no need to gloat if you're already that age. Besides the "hardware," the physical development of the brain, there is of course such a thing as life experience and knowledge. And in that, of course, you are at an advantage when you are a little older.
And not everyone peaks at the same time. To illustrate, Band cites the ages at which scientists become professors. Beta scientists become professors younger, on average, than alpha scientists. 'Because people in the latter group build up more and more knowledge during their lifetime, because they have read more and more. That is very different from peak performance in, say, mathematics, where you have to calculate something with complicated formulas.
That difference says a lot about brain functions peaking at different times.' So you may be at your best physically before age 30. But, says Band, "You can't really say: that's when your peak moment is. Besides: if you are exactly at your peak, how long will you stay there? You can influence that yourself.
Lots of exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle.
A rule of thumb, says Band, is: 'If you can grow old with a lifestyle, then that lifestyle is also good for your brain.' Part of such a healthy lifestyle is, of course, exercise. That is not only important for your body, but also for your brain. Scherder preaches that message wherever he can.
Several mechanisms come into play, he explains. First, your brain needs oxygen, glucose and other "nutrition. These reach the brain through the blood. 'Especially the so-called white matter is vulnerable when circulation decreases.' The white matter is the part of your brain with the connections over which brain signals are sent. 'In that case, brain signals are slower.' Brain regions don't communicate with each other as well.
In short: if you exercise, you keep your brain fit (your heart pumps harder, sending more blood through the brain). Misfortunes like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, all very damaging to your white matter, are also kept at bay this way.
But it's not just about blood circulation, says Scherder. When you exercise, neurotrophins also become more active, the nutrients of neurotransmitters, the substances that pass stimuli between your nerve cells.
You have to move moderately intense for at least half an hour a day.
So when do you move enough? When you exercise moderately intensely for at least thirty minutes a day. That means climbing stairs or walking briskly, not walking. And: seven days a week. Scherder: 'You have people who think five days a week is enough, who think exercise is a job.'
And then there are two requirements: you have to do that half hour at a stretch. And you can't compensate. Suppose you exercise vigorously five days a week, but do nothing the other two days, you still belong to the inactive people. ' I myself sat on that all morning today,' Scherder points to an exercise bike at a raised desk. He drags it in, gets on it and continues his story while cycling. 'I have no trouble with this anymore. Everyone laughs at it, but then I think: it should be the other way around, that you laugh when people have meetings sitting down.'
Puzzling doesn't help if you want to keep your brain young
The people who had been given easier tasks, such as puzzles, did not gain memory because those tasks were routine. And, Band explains, "In doing so, you don't trigger new brain processes, or the building of connections in the brain. He, too, says that's why: you have to keep challenging yourself.
'Then people think, 'I do a sudoku every day, then I'll be fine.' But after a hundred sudokus, that trick is so ingrained that you no longer really challenge yourself.' You might get a little better and better at solving sudokus. But not beyond that. It doesn't transfer to other functions. 'Therefore: take on new challenges as broadly as possible each time.'
Listening to music is an easy way to train your brain
Those challenges really don't just have to be courses or studies. You can do much more to stay mentally sharp. Make music, for example. Listening to it is already good. 'You see all kinds of networks become active when you listen to music,' says Scherder. But playing is even better, because it involves motor, auditory, visual and emotional information, according to the neuropsychologist.
According to psycholooog Band, you also need to get enough sleep: 'Cognitive performance is better if you meet the ideal of a steady rhythm, and seven to eight hours of sleep a day.'
And eat well. Not that there are miracle foods that will make you ravenously slim, no, but an unhealthy diet will make you fat and can give you diseases such as diabetes, all of which, in turn, will have an adverse effect on your cognitive functioning.
A fit brain comes from a combination of factors.
Or, even better, just do it all. Because it all contributes to a fit brain. And don't wait too long, say until you start to notice the effects of brain aging in middle age.
There is also such a thing as "cognitive reserve. By getting plenty of exercise and challenging yourself mentally at an early age, you strengthen the connections in your brain. Thus, you create a buffer against the deterioration of your brain. So, for those who are inactive, for those with a stimulus-free existence: sing, quilt, exercise, sleep, bike, learn and walk stairs!