Special Health Reports

A Guide to Cognitive Fitness

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A Guide to Cognitive Fitness

In this Special Health Report, Harvard Medical School doctors share a six-step program that can yield important and lasting results. Together these “super 6” can strengthen your intellectual prowess, promote your powers of recall, and protect the brain-based skills that are essential for full, rewarding, and independent living. From simple and specific changes in eating to ways to challenge your brain, this is guidance that will pay dividends for you and your future.

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What is cognitive fitness? Cognitive fitness goes far beyond memory. It embraces thinking, learning, recognition, communication, and sound decision-making. Cognitive fitness is the bedrock of a rewarding and self-sufficient life.

A Guide to Cognitive Fitness will show you how to sidestep threats to your brain’s wellness. You’ll learn how to build a “cognitive reserve” to address your brain’s changes. Most of all, you’ll shape and secure fulfilling and lasting mental fitness.

As never before, you can attain lasting brain health. Harvard Medical School doctors have identified six steps which, together, can spur and protect cognitive fitness. 

This multi-pronged plan includes and integrates proven approaches like optimal nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, social interaction, sleep, and stimulating activities. By incorporating simple, specific changes into your daily routine, you can add years of enduring mental stamina and vitality.

Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Medical Director, Deanna and Sidney Wolk Center for Memory Health, and Senior Scientist, Hebrew SeniorLife. 53 pages. (2024)

Cognition—the ability to think, learn, understand, and remember—stems from the brain. Without the sophisticated network made up of billions of neu ral connections, you wouldn’t be able to read a book, have a conversation, solve a crossword puzzle, talk to friends, drive a car, or do any of the hundreds of tasks that make up your days.

To accomplish all these tasks, the brain must be adaptable. Brain cells known as neurons (the type of cell that makes up nerve tissue) are highly specialized, but they are engaged in very flexible and continuously changing networks. Although your brain does not re place cells in the same way that other organs do, it is continuously reshaping the connections between cells. Literally thousands of new connections are made— and unused connections are cleared—every second. Scientists refer to this ongoing reorganization as brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity.

Researchers now know that, while the brain remains plastic throughout life, the efficacy of these mechanisms changes throughout your lifetime. That means that your brain isn’t necessarily declining, but it is constantly evolving over time. So if you’re 65 years old, having a healthy brain does not mean possessing the processing skills of a 25-year-old brain. Instead, it means having a brain that is in the best possible con dition for your current age. Scientists believe that you can maintain your brain’s optimal plastic capacity for your age by engaging in activities like exercise and cognitive tasks that challenge your brain.

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