For centuries, it was assumed that mental decline and memory loss were just a natural part of aging and there was nothing that could be done. Whether or not someone became “senile” was just the luck of the draw. Once a myth is accepted as fact, it can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy – and did for decades. An insidious aspect of ageism is that it can operate without conscious awareness, control or intention to harm once the myths are accepted as fact.
A few researchers and authors railed against the “decline theory” of aging. Harvard’s Ellen Langer wrote her brilliant anti-ageism book, Mindfulness, in 1989. In the book, she shares the results of several research projects documenting that, “much of what older people experience could be the result of negative stereotypes, internalized in childhood.” Among those stereotypes studied was memory loss. As Dr. Langer observed, “When there is one ready explanation for something – being old – we rarely search for other possible causes.”
This paradigm began to change in the 1990’s as we scientists aggressively began conducting brain research to explore “other possible causes” for memory loss other than age. In the last two decades, we have learned that not only does the brain continue making new connections between brain cells, it can grow new cells. Further studies have also documented the benefits of lifelong learning and the importance of keeping the brain active. Just as muscles grow stronger with exercise, so does the brain when engaged in brain fitness.
There is little doubt that the brain will change with age and there will be some declines, but studies show that only certain aspects of brain function actually decline. There is no sign of decline in long-term memory and knowledge retention in normal brain aging. Vocabulary has also shown to increase through at least age 60 and emotional intelligence, social skills, and self-control improve with age as well. The debate on the effectiveness of brain exercises, from crossword puzzles to expensive computer games, is ongoing, but studies have definitively shown that aerobic exercise does increase mental acuity. A study done by scientists at the University of Illinois found that 3 40-minute walks per week for six months improved memory, reasoning, and may spur the birth of new brain neurons. 
Dr. Mike Merzenich, founder of Posit Science, believes the recent brain fitness movement is a revolution, “It is the beginning of a great societal change in how we think about aging and how we think about making the most of our lives.” While there are new claims made almost daily about the benefits of a new computer game, vitamin, supplement or exercise, little time has been devoted to explaining what brain fitness is and how to pursue it holistically.
Brain fitness is NOT about the diagnosis or treatment of brain-related disorders. It's not just about delaying or preventing cognitive disorders. It is not just the latest memory enhancing computer game or nutritional supplement.
Brain fitness is about capability and performance. Having a fit brain means that we possess the thinking abilities and emotional well-being necessary to work productively, sustain meaningful relationships, and achieve our goals in life.
This definition of brain fitness has several important implications. First, it means that each of us can set our own performance targets. Just as a professional athlete might pursue a different level of physical fitness than an office worker, our brain fitness goals will naturally vary, depending on what each of us is hoping to achieve at each juncture in our lives.
This definition also means that brain fitness is about much more than just one or two narrow measures of brain function. Just as physical fitness is about more than the strength of our biceps, brain fitness is about much more than just memory. In order to pursue brain fitness, we need to consider all of the dimensions that define how we think (e.g. memory, attention, processing speed, problem solving) as well as how we feel (mood, anxiety, stress, etc.). The brain fitness movement is in its early stages, and we need to broaden our perspective if there is to be a meaningful impact on the health and well being of an aging society.
Finally, this means that brain fitness can (and must) be pursued through multiple modalities. Just as physical fitness is not achieved solely through the use of a bench press machine, a single activity (e.g. crosswords, computer-based brain exercises) cannot possibly provide a complete solution for maintaining or improving brain fitness. As with physical fitness, brain fitness is achieved through a wide range of different activities, proper nutrition, sound medical care, and many other lifestyle choices. Navigating through all of the scientific evidence and comparing the options is best done with the help of an expert advisor, but a comprehensive approach is clearly the best bet for achieving brain fitness.
Brain fitness is the capacity of a person to meet the various cognitive demands of life, and involves an ability to assimilate information, comprehend relationships, and develop reasonable conclusions and plans. It can be developed by formal education, being actively mentally engaged in life, continuing to learn, and exercises designed to challenge cognitive skills. Brain fitness is also accomplished with healthy lifestyle habits including mental stimulation, physical exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and sleep can improve brain fitness.
On the other hand, chronic stress, anxiety, depression, aging, decreasing estrogen, excess oxytocin, and prolonged cortisol can decrease brain fitness as well as general health. The first step in developing a brain fitness plan is to become mindful of the fact that living an active, purposeful life can dramatically improve motor abilities, strength, agility and mental responses; and then commit to a plan.
Professional fitness centers encourage people to see their physician before beginning a fitness program. When given the green light, the center then recommends a general fitness assessment to establish baseline parameters before developing a program to achieve optimum well being as well as the person’s primary personal goal which could be anything from reducing blood pressure to losing weight to looking better in a bathing suit. The same approach should be considered for creating a brain fitness program to fight future cognitive decline as much as possible.
 Newsweek, June 18, 2010.