Do You Worry About Keeping Your Brain Healthy?

As we get older it seems as though we get more forgetful and absent minded.  I used to laugh at my cat, Xena, when she’d walk purposefully into a room, stop abruptly, look confused for several moments, then head off to her food dish.

Now I’m finding that I’m doing the exact same thing (minus going for food).

There’s me standing in my pantry, bathroom or bedroom staring blankly and desperate to remember why I came here in the first place.  Was I looking for lightbulbs? New batteries? Collect dirty laundry from the hamper?  Shave my legs?  Organize thirty years worth of photos? 

“I know I came in here for something, but I can’t remember what it is.” 

How can a person walk a brief distance and not remember mere seconds later what that Very Important Purpose was?

forgetful senior scratching head

If you’ve ever had that experience you may be interested in a study written up in Time magazine called The Boundary Effect.  The researchers concluded that walking through a doorway serves as an “event boundary” in the mind, effectively shutting off what happened in one room and storing it away.  Your brain has already moved on.  It’s a relief to know that my brain is just very organized and I’m not just getting old and forgetful.

But I’m not alone in worrying about my brain health.  Many people are concerned about the prospect of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease as they age.

The good news is that you can help reduce your risk by focusing on certain activities that can help keep your brain healthy.

Thinking about brain health

Throughout your life, your brain’s job is to help you make sense of the world through your judgements, perspectives, information you’ve collected all your life, and what you pay attention to. It uses these connections to help direct your daily activities.  You use your brain to concentrate, solve problems, remember things, plan and learn. 

Brain health is all about maintaining a clear and active mind.

Our brains are constantly changing

At one time it was thought that the brain’s capacity for learning was fixed at a young age.  You’ve heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” 

We now know that this is not the case.  Our brains can actually get better with age thanks to neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and grow throughout our lifetime. 

Think of a rut in the road.  The more you drive on it the deeper it gets.  It’s the same with our brains.  As we experience the world, practice habits and learn new information, our brains grow new connections and strengthen the “pathway.” 

Somehow, I seem to remember most of the words to the longest poem in the world (The Lady of Shalott), the dog’s name on The Brady Bunch (Tiger in case you’re wondering), my childhood best friend’s phone number and a whole lot of trivia that would only come in handy if I were a contestant on Jeopardy – “What is the Pythagorean theorem, Alex.” 

That’s where neuroplasticity come in.  The more we engage in something, the deeper our connection in the brain and that’s how our long-term memories stay intact.  I spent six months learning the poem (and received a bronze medal at the recital by the way), watched the Bradys every week and talked to my friend occasionally on the phone.

That’s also why short-term memory is so fleeting and you can’t remember the last thing on a five-item shopping list – there’s no deep connection and it flits out of your mind like a hummingbird.

We all lose our keys and forget people’s names. We do it throughout our entire lives. It’s not until we’re older that they cause us to worry and we start joking about having a “senior moment.”

It’s not usually something to be concerned about but we can enhance and change our brain’s functioning through our activities and behaviour.

Changes to our brains can be positive or negative.  It depends on what we continuously do. That’s why it’s so hard to get rid of a bad habit. There’s also that stereotypical view of people becoming less tolerant and more crotchety as they age.

But that doesn’t have to be the case if we concentrate on doing positive things.

Many people in their 60’s and older take supplements or do puzzles to enhance their brain health.  But taking an omega-3 supplement before doing your morning Sudoku puzzle with your nondominant hand is not enough.  We need to incorporate other lifestyle changes to help us enhance our brain’s functioning all our lives and yes, even get better with age.

What types of activities should we do?

To help keep your brain sharp and healthy pick an activity you enjoy and can sustain over a period of time (20 to 30 minutes or more).  Make sure that activity makes you think, challenges you and allows you to increase the difficulty as it becomes easier to do.  Once your brain realizes it’s good at something, it stops trying.

Try different things and see what you like. Start small.  It doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at first. As you practice more often, you’ll will get better and you’ll become a master of something. Then you can move on to the next challenge.

Some pursuits that can strengthen your brain are:

  • Lifelong learning of the subjects you’re interested in also keeps you from being boring and makes you feel good about yourself.
  • If you’re an expert in something, share it with others and maybe earn some extra money at the same time.
  • Learn a new language so you can converse with the locals on your next trip.
  • Listen to music, or even better, learn how to play an instrument, or teach someone else to play.
  • Read fiction and non-fiction.
  • Discover your talents – a new sport or activity such as dancing, acting or writing.
  • Volunteer

Other ways to keep a sharp mind

Exercise:  Have you heard the saying, “what’s good for your heart is good for your brain?”  Exercise not only helps our heart and muscles; it pumps more blood to your brain as well.  You don’t need to train for a triathlon either.  Any movement is better than sitting.

Eat brain food:  Yes, that is a thing.  What we eat has a big impact on brain health.  The top brain foods are oily fish which is a good source of Omega-3s, dark chocolate, berries (high in antioxidants), nuts, whole grains, eggs, green vegetables, soy products and a little red wine.

Don’t stress out:  Retirement is supposed to be a less stressful time for us.  But often we find ourselves in situations that cause us stress and that’s definitely not good for our brains.  Practise deep breathing, meditation, use a gratitude journal, spend time with family and make good social connections.  The best way to fight stress is to have caring friends you can share your thoughts with.

Another critical factor is sleep:  If you have poor sleeping habits and find yourself exhausted all the time, your mind won’t have the ability to learn and remember things.

Keep a journal:  Record your thoughts and ideas.  The routine of writing will enable you to improve your way of thinking and help you find solutions.

Related:  3 Ways to Live a Healthy Blue Zone Life

The bottom line

The top risk factor for dementia is age.  As the number of older adults increases, so does interest in strategies to reduce the risk.  But it’s not your destiny and it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Find things that are challenging and that you enjoy doing and incorporate them regularly into your life. 

In the meantime, automate everything you can and use a password manager for the umpteen passwords to all the websites you frequent.  Be organized and have a dedicated spot for your phone, glasses, keys and anything else you regularly misplace.

Make an effort to pay attention instead of being distracted.  If you’re going to do something in another room keep repeating your purpose to yourself until you get there to escape the “boundary effect.”

Try these 59 Games to Boost your Brain Power.

And, above all, keep your sense of humour.

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