Forget the Sudokus — socializing could be the answer to keeping brains healthy as we age – Toronto Star

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Pop quiz: What’s the best thing you can do for optimal brain health?
Sudoku? Supplements? Online puzzles? Learning a new language on an app?
Answer: While we don’t have a definitive answer yet, it’s starting to look as if popping by a neighbour’s house and seeing if they want to go for a walk might be more helpful than any of these popular strategies people use to fortify their grey matter.
Recently, at McGill University’s Trottier Public Science Symposium, Dr. Lesley Fellows, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill, made the argument for the importance of social experience and societal considerations when it comes to thinking about brain health in a lecture called “Optimizing Brain Health.”
“One of the things that’s really good for a person’s brain is interacting socially,” says Fellows. “Our brains are made for that and it really drives plasticity, since a lot of the brain is engaged with social interaction, because you have to imagine what the person is thinking and respond to their subtle cues, and that’s very dynamic.
“These are all things that are probably way more powerful than doing some puzzles in terms of driving brain activity,” she added. “Not that they’ve ever been tested head to head. It just seems likely they’re more valuable.”
Fellows isn’t anti-puzzle or anything. In fact, she says she’s quite fond of a good crossword. The point is that many of us have a tendency to apply a narrow and utilitarian strategy when it comes to developing a regimen for brain health and, as a result, we might be missing the bigger picture.
For instance, most of us have heard that learning a new language is good for our “neuroplasticity”: the brain’s ability to grow, change and adapt. So, to exercise that muscle, some of us download an app and start practising Spanish for a few minutes every day. That will come in handy on your next trip and, let’s face it, most of us are too busy to commit to weekly classes. What if, though, the reason learning a language is good for the brain’s neuroplasticity has more to do with the social connection we get in the classroom than verb declension?
Recent research at York University on dance therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease confirmed what a lot of people who practised it already knew: regular participation in dance classes slows the progression of symptoms. The researchers, though, pointed out that they couldn’t identify a mechanism. Was it learning the steps? Or was it listening to music and learning to communicate complex moves with a partner? Or was it getting out with other people and having a good time? Maybe all of the above.
Why are we starting to widen the lens and look at the importance of social connection when it comes to brain health? In part, it has to do with the fact that we know the opposite, a lack of connection, is bad for the brain.
“There’s some pretty good evidence that people’s sense of belonging to communities protects their mental health,” said Fellows. “And others have found that loneliness and social isolation influence how well people perform in cognitive tests, for example, so it’s entirely likely that these things are better for your brain.”
It might be hard to take consolation in this, given that most of us have experienced some level of isolation over the past couple of years. Worse, given the latest variant of concern, we’re unlikely to get back to full-on socializing any time soon. Not that we should add brain health to our list of things to stress over. Stress is bad for us, right?
Instead, we might do better doing some proactive things while we wait for normal life to get back online, starting with quitting smoking, getting plenty of sleep and trying not to drink too much. Populations that tend to eat more of a Mediterranean diet have lower levels of dementia. And, most important perhaps, is to make sure our blood pressure is under control.
“There’s a really strong link between vascular cardiovascular health and brain health,” said Fellows. “The brain is a very energetic organ that takes 20 per cent of the heart’s output, even though it only weighs about a kilogram and a half, which is about two per cent of the body weight.”
Fellows adds that there’s some evidence dementia rates are starting to come down slightly; one theory about why that might be is that we’ve been better at screening for and treating hypertension. So, as always, the advice is to make sure you don’t fall behind on preventative health checks.
She notes, too, that not everybody has equal access to good health care, healthy diets, affordable fruits and vegetables, and walkable neighbourhoods. Investing in addressing inequality could play a big role in reducing rates overall.
And what about supplements? Sudokus?
“There’s really no evidence that supplements do anything at all,” Fellows said. “And as to the rest, to have people spending their energy and brainpower doing things that really matter, whatever that means to them, would be the best.”

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