5 ways to protect your brain, and boost your career

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  • 5waystoprotectyourbrain,andboost

    yourcareer

    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

    SharpBrains.

    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

    tips:

    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

    real life."

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