Clean Air for Cognitive Function: How Breathing Easy Helps Your Brain Behavior

Bob Gottfried Clean AirEveryone is familiar with the mental lethargy the slowly but steadily tends to creep over you during a long day at the office. It can be tempting to the feel as though your workplace is draining the brainpower right out of your head at times! For some people, that gut feeling is far from incorrect. A study from Harvard found that individuals who work in modern buildings, designed expressly to guarantee good air circulation and excellent lighting, are both happier and more productive at their place of employment.

There is no lack of media coverage regarding air pollution and CO2 growing presence in our planet’s atmosphere, but much less of the conversation usually revolves around indoor air pollution. This is unfortunate because there is a lot to know. The concept of building-related health issues (or sick building syndrome) extends back at least thirty years. By the 1970s, organizations were reporting concerns about the costs associated with health problems directly caused by a poor indoor environment. At the time, the EPA found that indoor air could be as much as times more polluted than the air outside. Since then, the body of research about indoor air pollution and its relationship to health, productivity, and learning has grown exponentially. The scope of this work has only recently expanded to include the impact indoor pollution may have explicitly on cognitive function.

The research team from Harvard found evidence to confirm that these correlations do in fact exist, as well as why. Led by Joseph Allen, the study is named Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments.

Allen’s team tracked the behavior of two dozen people as the completed six full work days under three different conditions. One was in a conventional building with high Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). The second condition was in a green building with low VOC levels. Finally, the study participants worked in a green building with both low VOC counts and ventilation from the outside. At the end of the study, Allen and his associates concluded that cognitive scores were, on average, over 60% better when participants were working in building with low pollution. On days when cognitive ability was measured in  green buildings with great outdoor air ventilation, scores rose by over 100%. Clearly, if you are looking to sharpen your cognitive function, one of the easiest and most effective things you can do is remember to take a breath – of fresh and clean air.

Stay Fit to Stay Sharp: Physical Activity Encourages Improved Cognitive Function

Fitness for Cognitive FunctionThe number of excellent reasons there are to stay in great shape seems to grow daily. There is an enormous body of scientific literature that confirms an incredibly wide range of benefits that the human body derives from remaining physically active. The most obvious benefits are well-known to basically everyone at this point. From childhood, the connection between physical fitness and physical health is made clearly apparent. Although obesity is a rising epidemic in the developed world, most adults are well aware of at least a few very good reasons that they should exercise regularly.

Unfortunately, finding the motivation to actually make a change can be very challenging. However, the increasing amount of research indicating a direct connection between physical activity and cognitive function may be enough to tip the scales when it comes to healthy life habits. The scientific community is steadily progressing towards an undisputed consensus that it is not just your waistline, heart, or cholesterol that relies on getting enough exercise – your very mind could be at risk if you fail to get up and get moving.

Last year, a team of researchers out of the University of Minnesota concluded that young adults who consistently participate in aerobic exercise maintain thinking and memory skills well into their middle-aged years. 2,747 healthy people with an average age of 25 took a treadmill assessment twenty years ago, and then again after two decades had passed. Cognitive tests analyzed a number of metrics, including verbal memory, psychomotor speed, and executive function. The team found that better performance in every category was aligned with better cardiorespiratory fitness 25 years before. Essentially, the fitter a participant was in youth, the sharper they were when they aged.

Another study completed by the University of Eastern Finland discovered that middle-aged individuals who live a physically active lifestyle are measurably protected from the onset of dementia once they are elderly. Study participants who took part in some sort of exercise at least twice a week exhibited a lower incidence of dementia than those who were less physically active. Their research also indicated it is never too late to start, if you are interested in reaping the cognitive function benefits. Even adopting healthy exercise habits after midlife revealed a decrease in the prevalence of dementia. Similarly, people who participated in leisure-time physical activity at least twice a week were also less likely to succumb to dementia. All this holds especially true for individuals who are overweight or obese at midlife. It is possible these results could impact how exercise interventions are structured and instituted to prevent cognitive deterioration and extend the quality of life of patients

It is already established in neuroscience that the brain-derived neurotrophic factor released during aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons. Recently, science has even begun to identify an “exercise hormone” dubbed Irisin that is associated with improved health and cognitive function. Hopefully, knowing that staying fit will keep you bright well into your later years will be enough to inspire an even greater societal shift towards healthier living.

Sleep Your Way to a Better Day: Rest & Cognitive Function

Ask any healthcare provider or expert and he or she will gladly attest to the importance getting enough sleep for physical well being. Whether your goal is losing weight or just maintaining a healthy lifestyle, sufficient sleep plays a critical role in improving your body composition. Unfortunately, modern society can make prioritizing our rest an increasingly formidable challenge. When you consider the extent to which technology and contemporary culture emphasize work productivity and offer so many options for distractions, it is easy to see how so many individuals fail to sleep for anywhere near their optimal amount of time.

The consequences of this trend, however, impact more than just your physical health. Sleep deprivation and impaired sleeping pattern also compromise your cognitive function. This can create a negative feedback loop, especially in regards to your work or school life, where you stay up late to complete tasks, do not get enough sleep to mentally excel during the day, and thus fall behind so you need to stay up even later. This cycle is critical to break, not only because it adversely affects your productivity, but also because of increased stress and the effect on your emotional being.

Acute and/or chronic sleep deprivation inevitably detract from your ability to both think and learn. The science community is also in agreement that a loss of alertness and attention also results, a conclusion for which the anecdotal evidence is wildly abundant. This inability to focus indicates a series of lapses or slowed responses – in short, sleep deprivation causes waking-state instability in cognitive processes like working memory. Certain mental skills are more dramatically impacted than others, like creativity or the ability to innovate. However, cognitive function in terms of reaction times, memory assignments, and reasoning skills all also end up significantly impaired by acute sleep loss.

So, it is obviously important to take getting to bed and enjoying enough sleep seriously. If you are struggling with cognitive issues, evaluate whether or not you are sufficiently rested. The signs that you may be struggling with sleep deprivation are much more nuanced than just being vaguely tired. Many individuals become accustomed to adequately performing with an inadequate amount of sleep, so that they do not realize they are not operating to their fullest potential. Consider if you suffer from a lack of motivation, if you are irritable or moody, if you are unable to cope with stress, if you struggle with memory problems, if you lack enough energy to sustain the day to day activities, or if you gain weight easily. All that and more might very well indicate that you need to get to bed earlier or stay in bed later. Remove all distractions (especially electronic ones!) at least an hour before you end your evening and start taking care of yourself by finally taking sleep seriously.