Digital technology is changing the way our brains work, new research has confirmed.
A new report by Equazen, which specialises in brain health supplements, has found that:
- Surfing the internet alters brain activity and reduces attention span — and this continues when we come offline.
- From 2000 to 2013 the average adult attention span plunged by 50% — and is now lower than that of a goldfish.
- The more television teens watch, the shorter their attention span — and this drop-in focus is reflected in their academic achievement.
- Watching more than 3.5 hours of television a day increases the risk of dementia in over-50s.
- Information fires up the same dopamine reward pathways that drive addiction.
At the opposite end of the information spectrum, there is clear evidence that books, and learning to read, trigger positive brain changes and protect against mental health problems and cognitive decline.
Equazen says the implications for the nation’s immediate cognitive performance and long-term health and mental wellbeing, are enormous for people of all ages.
It is estimated there are now 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, and every three minutes another person will develop the condition — so anything we can do to stall cognitive decline could have a huge impact.
Every year, one in four people will experience a mental health issue, and young people are particularly vulnerable with the Children’s Commissioner — the watchdog responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of children as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — warning that 28% of children and teens with a recognised mental health need are being turned away from mental health services.
A new, evidence-based and fully-referenced, report from a panel of experts brought together by Equazen, sets out the latest science around brain health and cognition and shows a clear correlation between health literacy and wellbeing, with studies confirming how reading protects against depression and increases cognitive reserve.
Brain scans shows that learning to read increases activity in the cortex, the area of the brain which carries out ‘higher order’ functions — and this increased activity extends to other parts of not generally associated with learning.
Equazen says a good book can even rewire our brains, and prompt an increase in the number of neural connections. This connectivity boost continues for some time after we stop reading — a phenomenon researchers likened to the muscle memory which comes into play when we develop physical skills.
And the power of reading reaches down the generations, with the latest evidence revealing that a mother’s reading ability has an impact on the brain activity of her children.
Professor Robert Pickard, emeritus professor or neurobiology at Cardiff University, says: “We can see that reading influences parts of the brain that other mental activities don’t seem to reach, and that suggests all sorts of possibilities in terms of learning, building cognitive reserve and protecting memory and brain function.”
Further research commissioned by Equazen shows that parents instinctively recognise the importance of reading:
- More than half (55%) thought it developed creativity and imagination
- 51% said it developed language skills, and
- 25% thought it helped concentration and focus.
- But 69% thought their children read fewer books than they did as a child, and
- A third (34%) thought their children had less exposure to books.
Dr Emma Derbyshire and public health nutritionist and advisor to Equazen notes: “A healthy diet, regular exercise and the right mental stimulation are the bedrocks of cognitive function in childhood, and they continue to be important at every stage of life.
“There are no ‘magic bullets’, but there are a number of proven strategies it makes sense to include in your cognitive arsenal.”
Work on it
Our brains are like muscles and studies show that if we don’t use them, we lose them. The most recent, a Scottish study published in the British Medical Journal, showed that problem solving increased cognitive scores and protects against cognitive decline in old age.
Language is particularly protective. Researchers at Chicago’s Rush University who tracked 294 seniors found their cognitive skills were linked to how often they read books, wrote letters, and visited a library.
What’s good for the body is also good for the brain — a new study showed that six months of regular aerobic exercise produced significant improvements in executive function in over-55s with cognitive impairment.
Researchers who tracked 1,000 Swedish women for 44 years found those with the best cardiovascular fitness were less likely to get dementia and if they did, the onset was delayed by 9.5 years compared to women with average levels of fitness.
The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) — an independent think-tank of scientists, health professionals, academics and policy experts — points out: “Increasingly, research is showing that a healthy diet is crucial to optimal brain health.”
Key nutrients are: iron, vitamin B12 and, in particular, the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA.
Data from 11,875 pregnant women, found that children born to those with the highest intakes of seafood, a rich source of DHA, had higher scores for verbal intelligence, positive behavioural patterns, fine motor skills and social development when they were tested at eight years of age.
DHA is found in breastmilk and higher concentrations have been linked to a wide range of brain benefits in babies.
Placebo-controlled study in healthy eight- to 10-year-old boys found that DHA supplements improved their reaction times and sustained attention, and brain scans confirmed DHA increased activity in their prefrontal cortex.
A UK study of 9,000 women and children found women with the lowest consumption of omega-3 also had children with lower IQs by the age of three, and by the time they were teens they were twice as likely to struggle with social interactions.
And a study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics noted: “Various developmental problems including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been linked to biological deficiencies in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).”
Analysis of 10 studies involving 2,280 people, found that dementia patients have lower levels of EPA, and, levels were significantly lower in those with pre-dementia.
The exact mechanisms behind these brain benefits are still being unravelled, but Professor Philip Calder, an international authority on omegas and brain health, based at Southampton University points out: “A major role of omega-3 in the brain is to increase membrane fluidity which enhances glucose uptake and the transmission of information between neurones.”
Both DHA and EPA have been shown to influence receptor function in the brain as well as neurotransmitter generation and metabolism.
New research commissioned by Equazen which polled 1000 respondents found two out of three consumers (65%) had never heard of DHA, and of those who thought they had, a quarter (24%) thought it was a hallucinogenic drug and almost one in five (17%) thought it was a cleaning product.
Knowledge was better when consumers were asked about omega-3 more generally, with three out of five (62%) identifying it as a healthy fat and more than nine out of ten (93%) naming oily fish as a good source.
Despite knowing oily fish delivers important omega-3 fats, UK intakes are well below the recommended 140g a week — and only two out of five (41%) of those quizzed for the Equazen study said they made a conscious effort to ensure their diet included omega-3.
The Equazen effect
Equazen makes a range of clinically proven omega supplements which are specially formulated to support brain health and cognition at key life stages.
A double-blind placebo control trial by scientists at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, found children in mainstream schools who were given Equazen showed significant improvements in reading scores in just three months.
And children with newly diagnosed ADHD were given Equazen in combination with the Ritlalin-type drug methylphenidate, doses of the prescription medicine could be cut by up to half. Lead researcher, paediatric neurologist Eduardo Barragan, concluded Equazen is “an effective, well tolerated treatment for children with ADHD”.
Dr Emma Derbyshire says: “The clinical trials which confirm that Equazen supports reading and improves children’s scores across a number of measures shed light on the importance of omega-3s for brain health, and offer parents a simple strategy to help children who may struggle, or would benefit from a boost.”