For centuries, we’ve searched for a magic drug to improve memory and keep us from slipping into senility. A hundred years ago, salesmen peddled magic potions on the sidewalks, but today we have our own version of snake oil. On-line brain games boast of better memory with the help of the right puzzles, supplements promise to keep us sharp, and social media ads pop up daily with the latest cure for the intellectual sluggishness of advancing age. It seems we’d pay anything to boost our mental agility. But the startling truth is that we’ve had the secret inside us, all along, in the form of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)— a magic protein with the power to make our brains faster and enhance our memory.
How can you get your hands on this priceless elixir? Happily, it’s well within your reach, but to understand how — and why — you first need to meet the remarkable athlete who showed us the way: Olga Kotelko.
Born in Canada in 1919 to Ukrainian immigrant farmers, Olga, a self-described “plain Jane,” was the seventh of eleven children. She worked quietly as a teacher in a one-room school, divorced when she was pregnant with her second child, and eventually—much later in life—earned her college degree in night school. Then, at the age of 80, something remarkable happened: Olga, who’d never even exercised regularly until she was 65, started winning track and field competitions—and she started to win big. And she kept winning until the age of 95. In fact, by the end of her career, she’d broken an astonishing 37 world records and won 750 track and field medals.
Fascinated by Olga’s superpowers, scientists at the University of Illinois decided to study her brain when she was 93; they examined her memory and other mental skills with extensive brain imaging and neuropsychological assessment—and what they found, in the end, was shocking. Her brain appeared similar to women decades younger. In particular, her white-matter tracts—the rapid transit lines that shuttle information between brain regions – looked especially young. So did her corpus callosum— the superhighway connecting the right and left sides of the brain. Even more remarkable, her hippocampus – a core memory area that often shrinks with age – was larger than expected.
The lesson of Olga Kotelko becomes even more powerful when combined with the research on Super Agers—people in their 60’s to 80’s with memory similar to those decades younger. In some cases, researchers found no differences in the thickness of brain tissue between Super Agers and people several decades younger, including 18-35 year-olds. In other cases, the brain tissue of Super Agers was even thicker than that of middle-aged adults. Bear in mind, all that thickened tissue is important; in these examples, thicker means more efficient. And more efficient means more powerful. What we’ve learned from Olga and Super Agers is that the brain is far more capable of self-improvement than we ever dreamt possible. What gave rise to the superior brain structure and function of Olga and the Super Agers? Although we can’t be sure, research provides several clues that bring us back to the power of BDNF, that magic elixir of memory.
Until the late 1990’s, scientists believed the brain was born with all the cells (“neurons”) it would ever have, and that new neurons could never be produced. But the discovery of BDNF changed all that. It functions like a master engineer, rewiring and building new pathways in the brain. As new neurons are born, brain tissue thickens, making our brains faster and our memory and attention stronger. That’s because as luck would have it, all that remarkable neural growth virtually explodes in the two brain regions we need them most: First, the hippocampus, our central memory processing area, where everything we experience and learn is packaged before being sent to other brain areas for storage; and second, our frontal lobes, responsible for helping us discern right from wrong, puzzle out the solution to problems large and small, and analyze all the information we receive to make sense of the world and the people around us. The frontal lobes are so crucial to brainpower they comprise over half your brain volume! Our brain’s master engineer couldn’t have chosen two better locations to set up shop. The only missing piece of the puzzle, now, is how to keep the engineer busy in your own brain. And this is where the news gets even better.
When it comes to bathing the hippocampus and frontal lobes in the magic brain-building elixir of BDNF, there’s no precious potion, wondrous pill, or super puzzle that can ever rival one simple secret that as the Super Agers, Olga, and countless studies have shown, we’ve always been able to discover— by literally taking a few more steps each day: cardiovascular exercise.
And here are 3 tips to start using exercise to unleash your brain’s superpowers today:
1. Enjoyment is key! Choose an activity that boosts your heart rate, and that you truly enjoy. If you love nature, try walking, hiking, or biking outdoors. If you adore dancing, take a class or dance at home to your favorite music. If you need low-impact exercises, consider swimming, water walking, stationary biking, elliptical machines, or chair aerobics. The great news about cardiovascular exercise is that no one type is best for brain health. If you don’t like an exercise initially, see if you feel happier once you’re done. Sometimes, it’s the thrill we feel after exercise that keeps us going.
2. Dedicate time (it doesn’t need to be much). 30 minutes of heart-pumping exercise 4 or 5 times per week is optimal. If that sounds overwhelming, begin with just 5-10 minutes per day, and gradually increase the time by a few minutes each week. Just step outside, into the gym, or hop on an elliptical or aerobic machine that appeals to you most. Inevitably, even if you planned on five minutes, you’ll go beyond that once you’re there. If you’re struggling to get yourself to the gym, sign up for a class. Making appointments keeps you accountable and more likely to show up.
3. Name your tune! Music increases motivation and joy. Create a playlist of your favorite tunes to exercise with. Start your workout with an exhilarating song, and end with a cool down to one of your favorite slower songs. Add songs to your playlist one at a time to increase the length of your workout. I love starting my workout with the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Not only does it bring an immediate smile to my face, but I can’t help dancing when I hear it. I also love to include other upbeat songs by Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, and pretty much anything from the musical Hamilton. I hope you find that speaking to your soul and emotions with music will also keep you moving!
The great news is that cardiovascular exercise not only improves memory, but it reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. By combining it with other factors (more on that in future articles!), you might well become one of the lucky crowd of Super Agers. It even boosts memory for people who’ve already been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (an early decline in memory) and Alzheimer's.
And, as Olga Kotelko showed us, it’s never too late to start exercising, and even excel at it, well into old age. Which means it’s never too late to build a better brain.
Now that’s a discovery as priceless as any magic potion.
Check with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your exercise regimen. Then get ready to experience the benefits as your “High Octane Brain” takes shape!