Dual n-back training has been shown, in numerous scientific studies, to carry significant cognitive benefits. But there are also other important ways for you to improve brain function and protect against cognitive decline — from lifestyle interventions, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise, to the management of pathological conditions that increase the risk of dementia, such as obesity and hypertension.
If you are practicing dual n-back, it’s presumably because you are eager to raise your IQ and stave off age-related cognitive decline. Yet, cognitive training via dual n-back is just one way of achieving this goal. We recommend that you supplement your dual n-back practice with other interventions that scientists have linked to improved cognitive performance.
Broadly speaking, interventions designed to improve brain function and protect against cognitive decline fall into three categories: (1) lifestyle interventions, (2) disease management, and (3) cognitive interventions.
Your lifestyle affects your cognitive performance in many different ways. This is good news, because it means there are plenty of levers for you to take positive action.
Exercise regularly. There is substantial evidence that physically active people are less likely to suffer from cognitive decline. It is believed that this association is due to both the direct effects of exercise on brain structure and the indirect effects of exercise on other biological mechanisms linked to cognition, such as cardiovascular health.
According to scientific research, your choice of exercise matters: Aerobic training has been shown to be more beneficial for cognitive performance than resistance training. For optimal health benefits, you should engage in 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic training per week. This includes activities such as running, swimming, single tennis, uphill hiking, and fast cycling.
If you prefer less intense aerobic activities, you should double your weekly time budget (i.e., set aside 300 minutes per week). Examples of such activities include gardening, brisk walking, water aerobics, and slow cycling.
Improve your diet. Like exercise, nutrition is thought to have both direct and indirect effects on cognitive performance. Among dietary approaches, the Mediterranean diet is the one that has been most extensively studied in relation to cognitive function. Research suggests that strong adherence to the Mediterranean diet decreases the risk of dementia, and that, among individuals with normal cognition, it’s associated with improved episodic memory and global cognition.
As regards individual foods and nutrients, studies suggest that fruits, nuts, vegetables, olive oil, coffee, and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) all seem to have cognitive benefits. And there is some evidence in favor of folate, carotenes, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E, though here the findings are less consistent. At the same time, the WHO cautions against some popular supplements, including those for PUFA and vitamin E, since, at high doses, they have been associated with undesirable side effects that outweigh their benefits.
In general, the WHO recommends the following nutritional guidelines for brain and overall health: (1) at least 400g of fruits and vegetables per day (excluding potatoes and other starchy roots); (2) plenty of legumes, nuts, and whole grains; (3) less than 5-10% of total energy intake from free sugars; (4) less than 30% of total energy intake from fats overall, less than 10% from saturated fats, and less than 1% from trans-fats; (5) and less than 5g of salt per day.
Get proper sleep. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the quantity and quality of one’s sleep plays a fundamental — and widely underestimated — role in protecting one’s health. This is also true for one’s cognitive health. According to a recent meta-analysis, individuals with sleep problems had a 1.55, 1.65, and 3.78 times higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive impairment, and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease than individuals without sleep problems, respectively. In fact, up to 15% of Alzheimer’s disease cases may be attributable to sleep problems!
There are several simple ways to improve your sleep. First, it’s important to maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Set a bedtime that allows you to catch at least 7-8 hours of sleep, then stick to it even on weekends and during vacation. Second, prepare for a good night of sleep by adhering to the following practices before bedtime: Avoid caffeine, alcohol, large meals, and excessive fluid intake; turn off electronic devices and limit exposure to bright light; and establish a relaxing bedtime routine. (If you find that you’re not sleepy regardless, don’t go to bed yet.) Finally, configure your bedroom in a way that protects your sleep: Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet, maintain a cool room temperature, and use your bed only for sleep and sex. If you don’t manage to fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and engage in a quiet and relaxing activity for a while. If problems persist, reach out to your doctor, who may prescribe cognitive behavioral therapy, which is considered the most effective long-term treatment for individuals suffering from chronic insomnia.
Practice mindfulness. Over the past two decades, scientific evidence has been mounting that mindfulness practice yields powerful benefits across a large number of outcomes, from improvements in well-being, interpersonal relating, and chronic pain, to relapse prevention in depression and substance use disorders. In addition to these non-cognitive outcomes, mindfulness practice has also been linked to multiple cognitive benefits. These range from improved memory to enhanced attention, self-control, processing speed, and executive functioning.
To get started with mindfulness, we recommend completing the 8-week program from Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, a book by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. The program is based on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which Mark Williams co-created, and which, in turn, was based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Today, MBSR and MBCT represent the scientifically most robust approaches to reap the manifold benefits from mindfulness.
Avoid tobacco and alcohol. Both tobacco and alcohol damage your health in numerous ways, and extensive research suggests that this also applies to your cognitive performance. As for alcohol, in particular, it had long been thought that, in moderate amounts, alcohol may actually be beneficial. But that hope has meanwhile been dashed: According to the authors of a recent study published by Nature, even moderate drinking adversely affects global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure. We thus recommend that you abstain from both tobacco and alcohol entirely.
Be socially active. Social engagement is not only an important predictor of overall health and well-being throughout one’s life, but it also seems to have cognitive benefits. Indeed, according to a meta-analysis from 2015, low social participation, less frequent social contact, and more loneliness are all associated with incident dementia. The scientific evidence remains somewhat thin, and more research needs to be conducted before we can draw firm conclusions with respect to the impact of social engagement on cognition. But we recommend that you lead an active social life regardless, if only to reap the well-established non-cognitive benefits.
There are several pathological conditions that are associated with an increased risk to your cognitive performance. You can reduce this risk by fighting the underlying conditions.
One such condition is depression. According to a meta-analysis from 2014, its presence almost doubles the risk of dementia. Another example is hypertension: According to studies, high blood pressure in mid-life is associated with a higher risk of dementia later in life. Ditto for diabetes: There are several studies linking it to increased risk of dementia. You should also watch your weight: According to a recent meta-analysis, obesity (though not overweight) in mid-life further increases dementia risk. Another cause for concern is hearing loss: According to a meta-analysis published by The Lancet, if left untreated, it can double the risk of incident dementia. Finally, a large body of observational evidence has linked dyslipidaemia to dementia risk.
If you suffer from any of the aforementioned diseases, it’s important to be proactive in combating them — both to protect your cognitive performance in particular and to improve your overall health in general.
The third and final way to improve brain function and protect against cognitive decline is the most direct one: cognitive interventions. These interventions can be either very broad (overall educational attainment) or very narrow (cognitive training via dual n-back).
Keep learning. There is a robust association between low education and dementia incidence. In fact, according to a recent meta-analysis, each incremental year of education reduces the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and any dementia by 8% and 7%, respectively!
The mechanisms behind this relationship aren’t entirely clear yet. One popular hypothesis is that higher educational attainment provides individuals with a “cognitive reserve”, which enables them to cope more efficiently with any given amount of future brain damage. Indeed, according to a recent meta-analysis, a high cognitive reserve nearly halves the risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
In many studies, educational attainment is measured in terms of formal education. But it may not be practical for you to add another formal degree to your academic belt. If so, we recommend that you keep acquiring new knowledge and skills through self-study. This can be as simple (and cheap) as hitting your local library!
What if your schedule doesn’t leave you any time for studying, though? The truth is that you can nevertheless get a surprising amount of studying done every day. After all, no matter how busy you are, you probably experience occasional moments of downtime during the day. With “downtime,” we specifically mean moments during which your hands or eyes are busy (and thus you cannot read), yet your mind is free to absorb information. Examples of downtime include commuting, exercising, doing housework, brushing your teeth, etc.
You can make profitable use of your downtime by listening to instructive audio content. To help you learn as much as possible during these moments, we’ve built Expercast, a spoken audio app that is focused on education. By exploiting every minute of their downtime, some of our users manage to absorb the equivalent of an entire book every day! (Note that, at present, the app is still in private beta. If you’d like to try it, please reach out to us.)
Also, you should check out One Daily Nugget, a small side project of ours. After you sign up, we’ll send you the link to one highly curated article about self-improvement every day: From time management to decision-making, from health to happiness, from building relationships to achieving financial independence — we’ve got you covered. One Daily Nugget is essentially a way to embark on a comprehensive self-improvement reading program without having to dedicate more than around 5 minutes per day, on average. So far, our readers are loving it!
Practice dual n-back. It may seem obvious that, if one aspires to improve one’s cognitive performance, then one should engage in cognitive training. In fact, however, it had, until recently, been considered impossible to improve one’s general cognitive ability through training. According to conventional scientific wisdom at the time, training to become smarter was akin to training to become taller!
Yes, there had always been countless “brain games,” and, after a bit of practice, people tended to get better at them. The problem, however, is that these improvements never transferred to untrained tasks. That is, people improved at the games themselves, but they didn’t actually get any smarter in the process.
Then, in 2008, two doctoral candidates at the University of Bern in Switzerland came along and argued, in a ground-breaking study, that it’s actually possible to improve one’s intelligence through cognitive training after all — namely, via a particularly strenuous working memory exercise called dual n-back. More than a decade’s worth of peer-reviewed research followed, largely corroborating the gist of the initial findings.
Getting started with dual n-back is easy. (What’s hard is sticking with it.) You can find several dual n-back apps in the iOS and Android app stores. In choosing between them, however, make sure to pick one whose design closely mirrors that of the scientific studies. That way, you’ll maximize the likelihood that the cognitive benefits demonstrated in the research will actually materialize for you!
One example of such an app is the N-Back Challenge. Our two founders – both PhDs, one with a focus on neuroscience, the other with a focus on higher education – have taken particular care to thoroughly align the app with the prevailing scientific research. What’s more, we’ve designed the app in a way that is specifically aimed at motivating you to actually complete your cognitive training — by framing the program as a “20-Day Challenge,” by providing stats to track your progress and compete against other users, by offering (customizable) notifications to remind you of pending sessions, and more!
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