Your brain can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s and that number is projected to triple by 2050 according to the Alzheimer’s Association, brain health is a top concern for many, especially baby boomers which would include me.
An “Alzheimer’s pill” isn’t likely to make an appearance anytime soon. Some people believe that a diet free of gluten or with lots of fish, blueberries, walnuts, and kale is the answer. Others are banking on regular physical exercise, a daily Sudoku puzzle, or meditation. While all of these things are beneficial elements of a brain-healthy lifestyle, what each of our brains really needs is a personal fitness plan.
According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, co-founder of Posit Science, and author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, the answer is right in front of our noses:
Contemporary neuroscience has shown us that you come from you. Your brain is plastic. You have the power within at any age, to be better, more capable, continuously growing a progressively more interesting life. If you’re in decline, you have great resources that can help you sustain — indeed, even regrow — your neurological abilities in ways that can help assure that your active brain shall last as long as your physical body. You have powers of re-strengthening, recovery, and re-normalization, even when your brain has suffered large-scale distortions that accompany developmental or psychiatric disorders, and even when it has been physically damaged in any one in any one of the innumerable ways that can befall you in your life.
If your still alive at the age of 50 and you live in the United States or Europe, the average life span extends into the ninth decade of life. Just about every person reading this book can optimistically look forward to living past their 85th birthday. You should know, then, that at that age there is roughly a 50% chance that you will be identified as senile or demented. Other individuals in that cohort will have memory or other impairments that prevent them from sustaining an independent lifestyle. In the latter case, the medical term is ‘mild cognitive impairment’ (MCI). The only thing mild about it is its name.
The payoffs of a brain fitness regime can be enormous for an individual and for our society with the population age 65 and older expected to more than double by 2060 to 92 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Merzenich writes:
They [the benefits] go far beyond remembering the odd face or word on the tip of your tongue. Brain fitness is about retaining your vitality, your zest for life, your independence, yourself. It is about giving your brain an excellent opportunity to last as long as your physical body. It’s about living longer, alive, full of it, fun, still intense, still confident, independent, still growing, more capable and more interesting next week and next year.
While you may never have to visit a brain fitness center, making brain fitness a priority does require that you reorganize your everyday life in ways that encourage brain health improvement, growth, and restoration. But, what exactly does that mean?
Suggestions outlined by Merzenich in Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life are:
Start spending time doing online brain training consistently at paid sites like BrainHQ, Luminosity, or free sites such as Brain Pages, AARP, or Easter Seals. Certain plasticity based exercises have been scientifically shown to drive cognitive benefits lasting ten years in reasoning and speed of processing.
From the day you’re born until the day you die, your brain is constantly revising and remodeling itself depending on how you use it, a concept known as neuroplasticity. Your brain actually changes form and function based on behaviors, experiences, and thoughts. Neuroplasticity can work for you to strengthen and improve your brain, but it can also work against you while your brain declines and idles. (See post: Your Plastic Brain: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly)
Stop or drastically minimize negative behaviors contributing to your neurological decline. In addition to the well-known culprits: drugs, alcohol, an unhealthy diet, and sedentary lifestyle, having your daily life constructed to require minimal effort, not asking you to think or pay serious attention, takes your brain offline more and more each day. The goal is to “Live WITH your brain,” challenging it often with new experiences and learning.
Merzenich suggests approaching life with a sense of purpose acquiring or improving an ability every few months and paying attention and engaging as you go through daily life. I would call the second quality mindfulness.
Develop the habit of careful conversational listening and later test your memory about what you heard. Study a foreign language. Take a class to learn a new skill, hobby, or art. Learn to play a musical instrument or dance the salsa. Regularly play ball-in-motion games like tennis, ping-pong, basketball, certain WII games, etc. which require you to think and move. Play thinking card or board games. Assemble puzzles.
When a few idle moments present themselves, instead of staring at your smartphone or drifting into unstructured mind wandering, engage your mind by mentally reviewing something from the past, challenge yourself to think of different answers to a question, or come up with alternate routes to achieve a destination or goal I would add that the time could be well used to meditate, visualize, or reframe thoughts. The point is to re-engage and strengthen good habits of thought control.
Merzenich cautions us to use computers, smart phones, or smart pads as tools and not brain substitutes. When used as tools, modern devices can provide learning and growth experiences which are good for our brains. However, relying on them so that we don’t have to think is to our brains’ disadvantage.
Seek And Spread Joy
Lastly, Merzenich advises us to seek and spread joy because as your brain gets healthier, your capacity for having fun and enjoying life increases which, in turn, makes your brain even healthier and brighter. The better it gets, the better it gets. Although this concept is easier said than done, noticing the good, practicing gratitude and mindfulness, cultivating compassion, and meditation can help incorporate more joy into life regularly.
The bottom line: Refocus and re-intensify your active hearing, seeing, and feeling. Re-engage with life again, with vigor, seriousness, and challenge. Nurture behaviors that are demanding on every level of perception and cognition — from addressing details of sensation and perception through complex levels of reasoning and planning. Learn to learn again. Celebrate every small step in progress, because small steps can lead to big achievements and the pleasure that accompanies them. Avoid the effortless path. Stop hiding behind the mindless, brainless,struggle-free behaviors that you mastered in your younger life. In other words, stop going to such great efforts not to engage in real life! Grow again, in your everyday activities, by improving old abilities and by developing new ones, by leading a life more richly supplied with interesting experiences, and by adopting a positive attitude and reclaiming your thirst and joy in life.
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