5 ways to protect your brain, and boost your career
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By Anne Fisher, contributor August 8, 2013: 10:40 AM ET
The latest neuroscience has identified specific behaviors that help to
ward off dementia in later life. They might also get you a corner office.
FORTUNE -- Not so long ago, conventional wisdom among neuroscientists
held that the human brain was doomed to deteriorate with the passage of
time, and there wasn't much anyone could do about it.
Instead, a raft of recent studies, aided by brain-imaging technology, all point
to a much different conclusion: Our grey matter can keep on regenerating
throughout life, producing new active cells all the time. "Your brain is a
living and constantly developing dense forest with billions of neurons and
synapses," says Alvaro Fernandez, founder and CEO of market research firm
The emerging science of neuroplasticity, which studies how our brains
change and adapt, is revealing that, as with muscles, it's a case of "use it or
lose it," he adds. "Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they stay
and how long they survive depends on how you use them."
Fernandez is co-author of a book called The SharpBrains Guide to Brain
Fitness that boils down the current explosion of new research in this area to
specific advice on what to do now to guard against Alzheimer's and other
forms of cognitive impairment later on.
By a lucky coincidence, there's plenty of overlap between what's good for
your brain and what could turbo-charge your career. Consider these five
1. Never stop learning. The latest research shows conclusively that, the
better educated a person is, the less likely she is to suffer from age-
related decline. "Highly educated people are likely to have mentally
stimulating jobs," Fernandez notes, and that fosters the birth of new
neurons. If you get into the habit of learning new skills throughout
your career -- which also happens to make you more marketable and
promotable -- your brain will thank you later.
2. Immerse yourself in another culture. In particular, learn another
language. As U.S. business (especially marketing) becomes ever more
bilingual, Spanish would be smart -- but, for the ultimate brain
workout, pick Russian, Mandarin, or Arabic, whose different
alphabets make them that much more challenging.
If you can, volunteer for overseas gigs, too. Not only do these make your
resume stand out from the crowd, but "exploring and adjusting to new
locations forces you to pay more attention to your environment" than
staying home, Fernandez notes. Navigating an unfamiliar culture, even for a
short time, is like calisthenics for your brain.
3. Seek out tough "stretch" assignments. "The goal is to be exposed to
novelty and increasing levels of challenge, so the task never becomes
too easy or routine," Fernandez writes, adding that this means
"expending effort and getting out of your comfort zone." Variety is as
important as challenge, several new studies show: "Excessive
specialization is not the best strategy for maintaining long-term brain
health. A bond trader may thus want to try an artistic activity, to
stimulate brain cells that he or she rarely uses otherwise."
4. Manage stress. "Excessive stress, no matter whether induced by
external events or by your own thoughts, actually kills neurons and
prevents the formation of new ones," Fernandez notes. Obviously, you
don't want that. The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness goes into
detail on how physical exercise, meditation, and even having a good
laugh help to protect your brain from the ravages of too much
pressure, while heading off job burnout too. Taking a real
vacation once in a while is also a proven stress fighter.
5. Have lots of friends. Not only is a vast and varied network of pals a
huge advantage when you want to change jobs (or hire the right
person), but it turns out that "social engagement contributes to brain
health," Fernandez writes. New research shows that regularly
interacting with a wide range of other people contributes to "both
short-term performance boosts and the buildup of cognitive reserve."
Is there an ideal number of friends? The human cerebral cortex, it seems,
can efficiently process only a limited number of relationships, and that
number (known to neuroscientists as Dunbar's number, after the
researcher who found it) is 150. In an interesting aside, Fernandez notes
that, although some people have thousands of Facebook friends, "the typical
number is around 120, which corresponds roughly to Dunbar's number --
that is, the number of friends and acquaintances people generally have in