Integrated Brain Fitness for February

Friday, February 5, 2016

Give yourself a gold star for each of these brain-healthy activities you do this month.

There is a lot of scientific research on the cognitive benefits of playing a musical instrument, as well as on the structural changes that can occur in the brain as a result of playing an instrument. Although much of this research has been done on children, adults can benefit, too—whether you studied music as a child or don’t get started until later in life. For instance, one study from the University of Kansas Medical Center showed that people who had musical training when they were kids performed best on a variety of cognitive tests (and the longer they had studied music, the better).11 Another study showed that when people first learned to play the piano after age 60, they showed better results on tests of working memory and executive function.12 So why not pick up an instrument? It’s fun, rewarding—and good for your brain health. Here are some steps to get going this month.

  • Week 1: Get convinced
    Before you begin taking music lessons (or if you are already a musician), turn up your motivation by checking out this infographic made for the University of Florida. Titled “The Psychology of Music,” it gives a quick visual overview on the many wonderful ways music can affect the brain.
  • Week 2: Pick out an instrument
    It may sound overwhelming to learn to play an instrument, but why not give it a try?

Start by choosing an instrument that is accessible to you and that you enjoy listening to. Borrow that instrument from a friend—or if you’re lucky, from a nearby library or other lending resource, which are available in some communities (such as Sacramento, CA in the U.S. and Kingston, Ontario in Canada). You can also rent from a nearby store or through an online site like

If you’re already a musician, it might be fun to take up a different instrument!

  • Week 3:  Find a teacher or start online
    Now that you have an instrument, it’s time to find a teacher. Some people like to start online. There are free tutorials on YouTube and similar sites, or there are paid one-on-one sessions with teachers over Skype and other video services. The most efficient approach (though not the cheapest) is probably the good old-fashioned in-person lesson with an experienced local teacher. Try a few lessons and see how you like it!

If you’re already a musician, try to improve your skills even more. Practice a more difficult song, learn to improvise, or take another step to push yourself to the next level.

  • Week 4: Keep at it
    Research suggests that the longer you play an instrument, and the more you develop your skills, the better it is for your brain.13 That’s why it’s a good idea to keep at it—though it can be hard to motivate yourself to practice. Sometimes just getting started is the hardest part. Tell yourself to do just five minutes of practice—maybe once you start it will be easier to keep going!

If you’d like to continue your education on music and the brain…
Try one of these well-reviewed, insightful books:

  • How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond by physicist and musician John Powell
  • This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by rocker-turned-neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin
  • Musicophilia by best-selling author and neurologist Oliver Sacks

11Hanna-Pladdy B and MacKay A. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology 2011 May;25(3): 378–386.
12Bugos JA et al. Individualized piano instruction enhances executive functioning and working memory in older adults. Aging Ment Health. 2007 Jul;11(4):464-71.
13Miendlarzewska EA and JT Wiebke. How musical training affects cognitive development: rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Front. Neuroscie. 2013; 7:279.

Nourish Your Brain: Try a Little Turmeric

Turmeric—a root that is often found as a bright yellow powdered spice—is an ingredient in many South Asian, Middle Eastern, and other Asian cuisines. It’s one of the ingredients in Indian curry powder—so anything that uses curry powder has some turmeric in it, too. Some scientists believe that turmeric’s prevalence is one reason why people in India have a significantly lower rate of age-related cognitive decline and dementia than in the U.S. The most likely active ingredient is curcumin, the compound that gives the spice its vibrant color. This month, spice up your kitchen with these turmeric-rich recipes.

What do studies say about turmeric?
More than a thousand papers have been published worldwide on the effects of curcumin. Among other things, these papers suggest that curcumin is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and may even help reduce the amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. More research is still to be done, but many scientists are hopeful that curcumin may be a useful tool in cognitive health.1

1 Mishra S and Palanivelu K. The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2008 Jan-Mar;11(1):13-19.
Ringman JM et al. A potential role of the curry spice curcumin in Alzheimer’s disease. Curr Alzhimer Res. 2005 Apr;2(2):131-136.
Ng T et al. Curry consumption and cognitive function in the elderly. Am J Epidemiol. 2006 Nov 1;164(9):898-906

Energize Your Brain: Strengthen Your Brain with Yoga

You’ve probably heard a lot about yoga. Maybe you’re already a master, maybe you’ve tried it once or twice, or maybe you think it’s only for people who can touch their toes (and that isn’t you). In any case, doing yoga regularly might be good for your brain. In addition to improving mental health and reducing stress, studies suggest that yoga can improve memory, attention, processing speed, and executive function2. So don’t be shy—get out there and try it! Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Idea 1: Sign up for a yoga class! Often, you can pay on a class-by-class basis so you can try it out and see if you like it. Typically, yoga classes are non-judgmental, so it doesn’t matter if you can’t touch your toes. Note that if you have health problems, are over age 65, or are pregnant, you may want to check with your doctor before beginning.
  • Idea 2: If the first yoga class you sign up for doesn’t work for you, don’t give up. Teachers have different styles, and a different class may work better for you. Shop around until you find one you like (or decide yoga really just isn’t for you).
  • Idea 3: If you don’t have the time or money to take a yoga class, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn. There are thousands of yoga instruction videos on YouTube and other sites. Just make sure to choose one done by a reputable teacher—and be careful not to overdo it.

What are the different types of yoga?
There are several different types of yoga. The most common are probably hatha, vinyasa, and bikram (“hot yoga”). If you want to learn what characterizes each type of yoga, you may find this article useful.

2Gothe NP and McAuley E. Yoga and cognition: A meta-analysis of chronic and acute effects. Psychosom Med. 2015 Sep;77(7):784-97.

Recharge Your Brain: Cut It Out

A lot of us like to be active right up until the time we get into bed. But for the best sleep, there are some activities we should probably cut out in the hour or two before hitting the hay. If you’d like to sleep better, here are some ideas to try this month: 

  • Step 1: Turn down the light: Exposure to light makes it harder for your body to secrete melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep. “Blue light” is especially bad. Your phone, tablet, other electronics, and energy-efficient lightbulbs (fluorescent and LED) are all sources of blue light. So if you want to fall asleep, try turning down the lights and turning off the screens a couple of hours before bed to let your melatonin kick in.3
  • Step 2: Don’t drink alcohol before bed: Alcohol can help you fall asleep, but drinking too much of it tends to disrupt the second half of your night. Studies show it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep,4 which can have a negative effect on memory and concentration. And while alcohol consumption increases the restorative delta waves of “deep sleep,” it does so in a way that actually disrupts that sleep, which can lead to drowsiness, irritability, and headaches. For a better night’s sleep, cut out the nightcap!5
    • Tip: You might try replacing a late-night drink with a glass of cherry juice. One study showed that drinking tart cherry juice increased melatonin and improved sleep time and efficiency.6
  • Step 3: Tone down the food: Large meals in the three or four hours before bed can cause acid reflux, which can disrupt sleep. At least one studysuggested that spicy food may be a culprit in sleep loss, too. Another suggested that eating meals low in fiber and high in saturated fat worsens sleep quality. As a test, try not to eat much after about 8 p.m., and see how your sleep is!
  • Step 4: Stop stressing: If you’re one of the 43% of adults who report that stress sometimes leads to a loss of sleep,try embracing a “winding down” period for a couple of hours before bed—no work, socializing, or anything else that heightens stress. It might also help to practice calming activities, like smelling lavender, meditating, or taking a hot bath.

The stress-sleep cycle is vicious: people who stress more sleep less, and people who sleep less stress more, so it’s important to get bedtime stress under control!

Want more detail about sleep’s relationship to memory?
Check out this six-minute TED-Ed video by Dr. Shai Marcu on the cognitive benefits of a good night’s sleep.  Or, read this in-depth article about all of the many health benefits of getting a good night's sleep. 

3Blue light has a dark side. Harvard Health Publications. 2015 Sep 2. Online publication.
4Ebrahim IO et al. Alcohol and sleep I: effects on normal sleep. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2013 Apr;37(4):539-49.
5Chan, JK et al. The acute effects of alcohol on sleep electroencephalogram power spectra in late adolescence. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2015 Feb;39(2):291-9.
6Howatson G et al. Effect of tart cherry juice (prunus cerasus) on melatonin and enhanced sleep quality. Eur J Nutr. 2012 Dec;51(8):909-16.

Sharpen Your Brain: Use BrainHQ

Are you keeping track of your BrainAQ? It’s your brain activity quotient – and it provides a handy measure of your training in BrainHQ.

You can see your BrainAQ by clicking the “Progress” link at the top of BrainHQ. Everyone’s BrainAQ starts at 0. The more active you are on BrainHQ, the higher your AQ goes. When you don’t train, it gradually falls. Train today to see your BrainAQ soar!