Maintaining your Brain in the New Year
4 Steps to fight age-related cognitive decline
Getting in the Spirit in the New Year with Brain / Mind Health!
Until recently, scientists believed the brain was stagnant, that is, incapable of change. If you damaged your brain from drugs, alcohol or even a car accident, there was little hope for improvement. For those with age-related cognitive decline, the prognosis was even worse: NO hope for improvement.
But in the 1990s, researchers learned the truth about plasticity – the brain’s ability to birth new neurons at any age. Where once brain researchers had focused on repairing old cells, they now turned their attention on the importance of creating newer, healthier ones. For those with memory loss, mental decline, and learning disabilities, the findings were beyond remarkable.
The research made its way to the public relatively quickly – creating a near tidal wave of products that worked (like brain-building games) and many that didn’t (“miracle brain pills”).
Despite the hype, legitimate sources like the Alzheimer’s Association agree that there are four realistic approaches to maintaining a healthy brain as one ages. They include:
- Mental activity
- Social activity
- Physical activity
- Proper diet
In recent years, media coverage of the brain’s ability to change has lead to sudden sales of crosswords, Sodukos, and other cognitive improvement-related books, magazines, puzzles and electronic games. It’s something that most long-time brain experts are happy to see.
“The fact that these neurosynaptic connections can be developed with cognitive skills training means that we can literally transform the process of learning by improving a person’s ability to retrieve information, analyze variables, and apply logic and reasoning,” says Dr. Ken Gibson, author of “Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in Your Child.” “I’ve been studying the development of these systems for nearly two decades and I’m thrilled to see that cognitive skills therapy is finally being recognized by the mainstream media for what it is – a revolutionary breakthrough in improving the way we learn.”
Gibson is a fervent believer that cognitive skills can be improved – both at home (with brain games), and in private centers (like brain-training facilities).
“For the average person, doing word games at home is a great way to strengthen cognitive skills and maintain the brain,” he says. “And for those who are experiencing more serious age-related mental decline, there are brain-training companies that offer intense, one-on-one cognitive skills training. Research has shown us that we can now fight the toll of the aging process, so why shouldn’t we?”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, research shows that regular engagement in social activities helps maintain brain vitality. Social activities include emotional support, work, volunteering, travel and participation in clubs.
LearningRx franchisee Becky McLaughlin has pioneered a pilot program for seniors to coincide with her brain-training programs for children and teens. “There’s a huge boom in online and handheld games for aging consumers to improve their mental function,” explains McLaughlin. “But not all senior citizens are going to turn on the computer or buy Nintendo. Seniors need local resources to strengthen their cognitive skills like memory, processing speed, and attention. Plus, cognitive decline doesn’t have to be age related, it can also be retirement related, which is why the social aspect of one-on-one interaction at the training facility plays such an important role.”
A 2001 study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Center for Mental Health Studies, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the American Association of Retired People (AARP) seems to corroborate the theory. The study analyzed the impact of professionally conducted cultural programs on adults over 65, and found that opportunities to participate and attend ongoing cultural activities (singing, painting and poetry reading, for example) had healthy and encouraging benefits, including:
* better overall health
* fewer visits to their physician
* rate of need for medication decreased
* fewer falls
* vision problems diminished
* a significant decrease on the Geriatric Depression Scale.
The general consensus? Maintain your friends, relationships and activities and you’ll maintain your brain health.
You already know that staying physically active is good for the body. But research now shows that even light to moderate aerobic exercise improves oxygen consumption, which helps the brain to function better. In the elderly, aerobic exercise – such as walking, bicycling or yoga – has actually been found to reduce brain cell loss.
Ask a friend or family member to join you (or join a class), and you’ll be adding the benefit of social interaction.
No real surprise here: What’s good for the body, is good for the brain. But what may be surprising is exactly how far science has come in identifying the compounds that are beneficial for the health and function of our brains. That body of research is growing daily, and supports the idea that along with proper sleep and exercise, many different types of foods are necessary for optimum mental functioning, including fluids, complex carbohydrates, proteins, beneficial fats, and various vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Just look at these brain facts:
- The brain uses 20-percent of the body’s metabolic fuel, but makes up just 2-percent of our body weight
- The brain can’t store carbohydrates like muscles can so it requires a constant supply of glucose
- Eating regularly ensures that the 100 billion nerve cells in the adult brain remain active
Like many body organs, the brain operates best when blood glucose is stable. Lack of concentration and other mental lapses can readily occur when blood glucose levels dip or surge. Ways to keep glucose stable include:
- Eating complex carbohydrates instead of simple sugars
- Balancing carbohydrates by eating them with small amounts of protein, beneficial fats and fiber
- Snacking throughout the day instead of consuming giant meals
- Eating breakfast
To metabolize glucose, our brain cells need oxygen, which gets to the brain by hemoglobin, the large iron-containing protein in red blood cells. Therefore, adequate iron is essential, along with Vitamin C, to help the body absorb certain types of iron. In one study, less than one-third of the female participants had sufficient iron in their blood.
These women performed cognitive exercises better and faster than women who were iron deficient. Iron supplementation closed the mental gap however, and the formerly anemic women did 5 to 7 times better on their cognitive performance after supplementation.
Other vitamins, minerals and trace elements are important for brain function too. Vitamin B-1 enables the metabolism of glucose. Potassium, sodium and calcium are used for nerve cell signaling and metabolic reactions. Zinc is important for concentration and memory. Even slight mineral deficits can lead to fatigue, forgetfulness and concentration problems.
Unsaturated fats also buttress brain function, especially the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. These oils are crucial for building brain cell membranes and protecting brain blood vessels. Many studies have shown they help guard against depression. Other studies show eating just one to three servings of fish per month significantly decreases the risk of stroke.
The brain is also dependent on protein, which boosts attention. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Those enzymes produce structural materials and transporters for the brain.
Water, of course, is vital for proper brain function. Nutrients can reach the brain in adequate amounts only if the body gets enough fluid. Studies show that even slight dehydration slows the rate nutrients can enter the brain, producing short-term memory deficits, reasoning difficulties and other cognitive problems.
Keeping our brains optimally powered is also dependent on when we eat. Eating breakfast is critically important for mental function in the morning. Results from 22 studies of school-age kids show that breakfast eaters have better memories, test scores and school attendance rates. Snacking between meals can also prevent or reduce mental dips by keeping a consistent blood glucose level.
Although you may not be able to completely stave off the effects of age-related cognitive decline, incorporate mental, social and physical exercise, as well as a balanced diet may be your best route to maintaining brain health.
Research and studies continue to prove that the brain is capable of growing and changing throughout life, and that this plasticity means instead of “growing old”, the brain can simply “grow” – if we continue to challenge it through training and exercise.
Now, that’s truly getting your Mind and Body in the Spirit of the New Year! Brain health is equally as important has physical health.
Article provided by LearningRx Orlando-Windermere. For more information, please go to our website and explore: www.LearningRx.com/orlando-windermere or call us at 407-614-6255.
SIDEBAR OF RESOURCES:
- The Alzheimer’s Association offers a free PDF of “The Healthy Brain Initiative; A National Public Health Road Map to Maintaining Cognitive Health” at www.alz.org
- To find a cognitive skills training center near you, visit www.LearningRx.com
- AARP offers links to free online brain games at http://games.aarp.org/
- Wendy Burt-Thomas is a full-time freelance writer with more than 1,000 published pieces and two books for McGraw-Hill. www.WendyBurt-Thomas.com