Brain Age – What’s Yours and Why Does It Matter?
A recent study conducted by the Imperial College in London showed that people who have a brain age that is older than their chronological age had an increased risk of early death, up to almost a decade prior to their chronological peers with normally aging brains.
What the researchers also discovered was that those people with a higher than normal brain age also performed worse on a number of physical tests, such as grip strength, lung capacity, and walking speed.
Even though early death might be a bit dramatic for the average executive, and most executives will be long retired before they hit 70 or 80 years of age, we know from research that many executives do suffer from many of the physical and mental states that contribute to a higher than normal brain age, such as stress, exhaustion, high blood-pressure, lack of sleep, and so on.
In my article “9 Brain-Aging Sins That Kill Your Performance” I touch on this a little more.
Because brain-aging, even rapid brain-aging, is a gradual process the actual destruction of key areas in the brain that are required for optimal performance and leadership capacity will likely begin at a reasonably young age, in a time where the average executive is expected to hit peak capacity. Also, the gradual decline in capacity will likely happen at a rate slow enough to allow it to progress unnoticed and under the radar until it becomes noticeable later in life.
In today’s highly competitive and volatile business world, executives are required to be able to do more with less, thus resulting in a demand for a capacity to lead, perform, and innovate that is much greater than we ever have seen before. Looking at market trends, this does not look like it will change any time soon.
For that matter, protecting the brains of our executives and providing them with opportunities to maintain their brain age is critical if we want to remain competitive and relevant today, and in the future.
Much like undergoing regular health-checks to determine our physical health status, or 360-Feedback assessments to determine leadership effectiveness, organizations should also consider providing their executives with opportunities to ascertain that their brains are healthy, fit, and aging at a normal rate.
Now, of course, this does not mean that every executive needs a brain scan. There are a number non-invasive ways executives can measure their brain age against people in their age groups, such as psychometric testing and so on.
Over the past 5 years, I have spent a considerable amount of time and resources researching the most convenient ways to be able to measure brain-age and have found that brain age alone really is not enough. What’s more important is whether or not the state of the executive’s brain is having a negative impact on the behaviors necessary for success, performance, and inspirational leadership.
For that reason, I developed the HeadStrong Performance Assessment, which not only measures brain-age, but also assesses performance and leadership attitudes and behaviors that may be affected by the executive’s brain-age. You can view a sample report of the assessment here.
After assessing hundreds of executives and leaders, I have learned that the majority of executives that I have worked with, suffer from accelerated brain aging, and because of that are not able to live up to their full potential as leaders and executives.
The only way, I think, we can ensure that our executives and leaders of the future are able to perform at full capacity and remain relevant in tomorrow’s business climate is by ensuring their brains remain healthy and fit, especially during times of chaos, change, and even catastrophe.
Personally, I can’t wait to see where the future of talent management and development takes us with regards to priming our talent to be able to be the best they can be.
9 Brain Aging Sins That Kill Your Performance
Many workplace behaviors that are considered socially acceptable are not only killing our brain cells, but also our capacity for consistent performance and leadership capacity. This article highlights 9 brain-aging behaviors that may be killing your, and your organization’s, performance.
Humans have been on this planet for only an evolutionary blink of an eye. Our amazing adaptability to environmental change enable us to not only survive the harshest of environments, but provided our brains with an opportunity to develop an amazing capacity to rise to the challenge, where other species went extinct. During those times, our brains and bodies were intricately linked to perform as a single unit, where the brain would strategize, plan, create solutions, and learn to communicate with other humans, and the body would function as a highly effective transportation vehicle, working tool, and even as a weapon for survival. What this means is that the brain and body developed an evolutionary advantage by being perfectly synced to function together. The human brain, therefore, is reliant on physical movement to function and the health of the body is reliant on a properly functioning brain.
Fast forwarding 100,000 years or so, the human race has not only learned to thrive in their environment. We have shaped our envirnment to such an extent that physical movement is no longer a daily requirement, creating a disconnect between our brains and bodies, which in turn is harming that one attribute that made us so successful as an evolving species, our adaptibility to change. Research is showing that brain capacity diminishes dramatically when physical activity is not adequately present.
The areas of the brain affected by a lack of physical activity are, amongst others, those areas necessary to manage stress, process memories, inhibit impulsive decisions, delay short-term gratification for long-term benefit, problem solving, empathy, and innovation. On a national, socio-economic scale, all of these skills, and more, are required to have the vision to lead countries and organizations, learn in schools, function effectively in teams, care about others in society, and be more effective in a family unit.
For the average executive, trying to function in today’s competitive markets, remaining competitive and relevant are essential for sustained financial success. As on one side, performance demands rise, while on the other side, physical activity requirements decline, more and more executives are finding themselves struggling to keep up, which in turn is resulting in a drastic rise of chronic fatigue, accelerated brain-aging, depression, burnout and also adult-onset attention deficit disorder.
In my own research, I measured brain-performance age by cross-referencing cognitive test scores of 108 executives with normative-data of various age-groups. What I discovered is that my executives had an average age of in their forties, but their average brain-performance age was comparable to that of people many decades older, showing serious accelerated brain-aging.
Interestingly, what my research also showed was that the cause of their rapid brain-aging had much to do with their daily rituals in how they managed themselves at work and at home, from managing their stress, to eating right, exercising regularly, and so on. In other words, the performance and leadership capacity of these executives was immediately impacted by how they took care of themselves. What I learned from this is that we can’t take care of business as effectively as we think, if we can’t take care of ourselves first.
Unfortunately, many of the behaviors that are killing our brain performance capacity are considered socially acceptable behaviors in the work-place making them difficult for many executives to recocgnize as performance killing habits.
For that reason, I have summarized 9 common performance killing behaviors that are still considered acceptable in many executives today. If you, or anyone you know, is interested in protecting your brain and performance capacity, then these are behaviors worth avoiding or moderating.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #1: You skip a walk in favor of a flop on the couch.
Movement produces proteins and hormones in the brain that stimulate memory and make you more alert. A daily walk in the office, around the parking lot, or through the airport helps keep your energy level up and your brain awake.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #2: You hit the snooze button (again) and run out of time for breakfast.
In the same way that an athlete needs fuel for the body to perform and recover from training, an executive needs fuel for the brain to perform and recover from stress. Without proper fuel, neurons in the brain die.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #3: You skip lunch to take an emergency conference call.
The brain has a minimal capacity to store its own glucose, which is the primary brain fuel, so it relies on you to feed it regularly. When you skip meals, the regions of your brain responsible for self-regulation, empathy and solution-based thinking begin to shut down. You become hyper-responsive to stress and brain cells in your memory processing centers die and your brain ages more rapidly.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #4: You don’t stock up on good snacks (so you naturally grab bad ones when temptation strikes).
Stress causes chronic brain inflammation, and processed foods like cookies, sodas and cakes only add fuel to the inflammation fire. They speed up brain-cell destruction from stress, resulting in memory decline similar to what we see in Alzheimer’s patients.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #5: You swill coffee and soda instead of water.
Coffee and soda may create a momentary lift as caffeine blocks neurons in the brain that make you feel tired, but the lift quickly declines resulting in rapid onset fatigue. Caffeine is also a stimulant for your brain and too much stimulation in the brain can cause brain-cells to wither and die. The best hydration is water, which transports nutrients and oxygen into your tissues and brain cells, resulting in sustained performance.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #6: You regulary “relax” with an after-work beer or a nightcap.
Alcohol is not so much a relaxant as it is an anesthetic combined with a stimulant. During a stressful day, the brain cells in the hippocampus (our memory-processing center), are stretched beyond capacity. As we drink alcohol, our brains are anesthetized and overstimulated at the same time, which causes additional trauma to the hippocampus and compounds the damage. Unfortunately, research is still unclear as to whether or not alcohol has any positive effects on the brain and popular media has over-romantacized the limited research in favor of drinking very moderate amounts of alcohol, which adds more fuel to the confusion. If relaxation is what you seek, try going for a relaxing walk. In my previous post, I talked about Walking in 4 Dimensions, which could be a much better alternative to anesthesia.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #7: You sacrifice sleep on the altar of work.
Many executives think it’s a badge of commitment to regularly sacrifice sleep in favor of working late. However, a chronic lack of sleep has serious effects on brain health and function. One study showed a single 90-minute reduction in sleep decreased performance and alertness by a whopping 32 percent, and another study showed that a chronic lack of sleep caused significant decreases in brain volume and memory. To top it off, poor sleep has also been associated with body-fat gain, high blood-pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #8: You skip water cooler chats.
Research suggests that more than 50 percent of employees suffer from feelings of isolation at work. Humans need interaction and connectivity, just as we need food and water. One study showed that social isolation results in reduced capacity for planning, communicating, impulse control, imagination and empathy. Conversely, social interactions help us learn and see other perspectives. They help us relax and feel happier. They make us more effective when we do return to focusing on work.
BRAIN-AGING SIN #9: You sit and sit (and sit some more).
Scores of research show that sitting more than six to eight hours a day increases brain stress and early mortality, not to mention exhaustion, stiff necks, heavy limbs and aching backs. If all that isn’t disturbing enough, consider that too much sitting actually thickens your connective tissue over time until you lose your range of motion (not unlike the “tin man” in the Wizard of Oz), which in turn makes us look, feel, and perform even older than we truly are.