05/28/2012 12:11 EDT | Updated 07/29/2012 05:12 EDT

The Dubious Science Behind Brain Fitness


It was only a matter of time, of course, before the health and fitness industry discovered its next big thing. "Brain fitness" is the new fad -- and not only among the aging baby boomers. It's never too early to exercise your brain, we're told. If we can fight our physical decline every inch of the way, we surely should be able to do something against the decay of our minds.

Brain health products are no longer limited to nutritional supplements like ginseng and bacopa, but include more computer software specifically designed to enhance our mental functions. Video games and computer-based training programs called "neurosoftware" should help us power up our cognitive abilities when we get more forgetful and less at ease with our learning skills.

It's no wonder that mind fitness has the attention of the aging crowd who is worried about Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. There's almost a sense of panic among those who have long been looking forward to their active and fulfilling "golden years." According to the New York Times, "many people are taking matters into their own hands, doing brain fitness exercises with the same intensity with which they attack a treadmill."

Unfortunately, a sagging brain can't be surgically lifted or made smoother with a few creams and lotions. We may be able to sculpt our muscles by lifting weights; our brain power, however, does not improve by, let's say, thinking heavy thoughts. And yet, that is pretty much what the newly emerging brain fitness industry is promising.

It's plain to see that a lot of this brain fitness hype is largely propelled by fear mongering. While the decay of our physical health and beauty is eventually forced upon us as a part of nature, our mental capacities are expected to last for a lifetime. That is because our mind is much more a part of our identity than, for instance, our skin or our hair. Losing our mind is equivalent with losing ourselves.

The medical profession has not yet found all the answers to what exactly causes the age-related decay of brain functions. Even for Alzheimer's disease, there is no definite description. So far, the diagnosis relies solely on the observation of its symptoms, as opposed to a genuine understanding of the actual causes.

While it certainly can be beneficial to challenge one's mind through comprehensive reading and crossword puzzle solving (or playing video games for that matter), nobody should expect that "exercising" the mind in such manners can do for brain cells what physical activity does for bone density and muscle structure.

On the other hand, clinical studies have long shown that physical fitness and mental vitality are strongly connected, especially in the later stages of life. Stress, unhealthy lifestyles and bad eating habits have a much more significant impact with age. A slowing metabolism makes it harder to control weight gain. Obesity and high blood pressure often prevent people from getting enough exercise when they actually need it the most. The resulting health problems multiply and become ever more debilitating in later years -- and that includes brain functions.

Anyone who has ever maintained an athletic regimen, such as running, mountain climbing or bicycle racing, knows about the "high" one can get from physical exhaustion. This euphoria, this intense sensation of happiness is caused by an increased flow of endorphins, a chemical compound that the brain produces in response to physical strain. It has also been shown to have other "side effects" that are highly beneficial for the brain itself. There is now some consensus among geriatric doctors and other health care professionals that the ways to maintain our physical fitness may also work for our mental vitality.

So, instead of getting all worked up about losing our minds, let's enjoy a good book after we've had an hour at the gym or at least a brisk walk around the block. Ways to go, baby boomers...