As we age our brain shrinks in size, changing the speed and ability at times to process complex information. For example, we may find ourselves entering a room and forgetting what we were looking for or finding that somebody’s name or a word takes much longer to recall. A delay in recall or becoming more vulnerable to inattention due to distractions can be a normal part of an aging brain.
What is not a normal part of aging is short-term memory loss — forgetting information in 30-second to 2-minute intervals of time, significant changes in use of language, getting lost in familiar settings or impairments in judgment and reasoning skills. These can all be signs of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, vascular or frontal lobe impairments and should be evaluated by a professional.
To keep our brain healthy well into our later years we need to focus on preventive wellness. Measures that apply to heart health also apply to the brain. That includes eating healthy, exercising, and remaining socially active. However, there are some additional factors to consider when focusing on brain health.
As review, the human brain is powered with 100 billion nerve cells or neurons that communicate with each other through electrical and chemical processes. Each neuron can create or form thousands of links, resulting in a staggering 100 trillion synapses or connections.
We used to believe that the brain was hard-wired and after a certain developmental stage no changes were possible. However, with the development of better neuroimaging technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we can now visually see how the brain can reorganize itself. The ability of the brain to reorganize itself both functionally and structurally simply by changing our thoughts, emotions, behavior, and environment is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is what allows the brain to recover after strokes or injuries as the brain can create new neuronal connections to compensate for the damaged connections. For example, the more we practice a task or repeat a thought, the more intense neuronal connections are made. When we engage in routine and over-learned behaviors, the brain becomes lazy and disinterested in making new connections. But creating new connections is important to overall brain health. Here are a few simple techniques for increasing neuroplasticity:
• Learn a new skill — preferably one that engages both hemispheres of the brain, such as learning to play a musical instrument, juggling or practicing ambidextrous activities, such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
• Take a new route to work to force the brain out of over-learned routine and patterns.
• Practice focused attention — listen more closely to conversations — taking in details instead of simply getting the “gist” of it. Similarly, take in moments or experiences with all of your senses — this activates new neuronal pathways.
• Physically exercise several times a week for 20 to 30 minutes to improve blood flow to the brain, which facilitates the process of neuroplasticity.
• Create new experiences, make new friends, laugh and rely on humor as a mechanism to challenge the brain through paradoxes and unique conclusion.
Stop multitasking to save brain power
Many of us take pride in our ability to “multi-task” and actually may criticize those who are only able to do “one thing at time.” In fact, this is often a battle between men and women, with women being credited with the ability to juggle many tasks simultaneously while men seemingly thrive when focusing and completing only one task at a time. This is often a frustration in relationships. However, I am sorry to report, ladies, that the men may be onto something.
Recent research found that when we think we are multitasking or engaging in several tasks simultaneously, our brain is actually switching back and forth between tasks and ultimately wasting brainpower. It turns out that our poor brain is using tremendous energy moving back and forth between the multiple tasks that we are trying to simultaneously engage in and, in the process, losing valuable resources.
Get distracted and cultivate creativity
We all have our peak times of the day — those times when we feel most rested, clear in our thinking, and focused. For the “morning people,” their peak time may be early in the morning hours, and for others it may be late in the evening. During these peak hours is when we are most able to solve analytic problems that require deep concentration and a systematic approach — such as solving a math problem.
However, it is also important to exercise the creative part of our brain. Researchers suggest that insight-oriented problems or creation of concepts requires some distractions. That’s right, periods of distractions and fatigue may also be good for our brains.
Here is how it works: When we are at our peak times, we are laser-focused and able to filter out most distractions. This allows us to remain attentive and solve complex analytic problems. But during our off peak times, when we are fatigued, our mind may move from distraction to distraction, leaving us less focused on one thing. It is during these times that the brain is free to make “new connections” between seemingly unrelated topics. This is where creativity, innovation, and insight develop.
The creation of new connections in the brain is at the core of “out of the box” problem solving and insight-orientated solutions. Further, the establishment of new neuronal connections keeps the brain strong.
Protect your brain by eating healthy proteins, leafy green vegetables, dark chocolate, and omega-3 rich foods like salmon and lentils. Stay hydrated. Laugh often. Exercise regularly. Create new ideas, friendships, and experiences, and your brain will thank you.
Lori Stevic-Rust, Ph.D., is the owner of Stevic-Rust and Associates, a Willoughby-based practice that educates healthcare consumers through television, radio, print ads, books, and national speaking engagements. She is also a national consultant for Artower Advisory. CBC readers can forward questions or inquiries to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is doctorlori.net and her Twitter handle is @drlorimindbody.
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