Use it or lose it!
What weighs three pounds, processes 70,000 thoughts per day and manages your every move, 24/7? No, it’s not Alexa. It’s your brain! That oft-forgotten organ (no pun intended), located in your noggin, controls your ability to see, hear, think, talk, walk, feel, remember and even breathe. So what have you done lately to keep it healthy? Not much?
You are not alone.
There is enormous fear in this country of developing dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities (thinking, reasoning) that interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most notorious type of dementia. The effect of this brain dysfunction on spouses, family, caregivers and friends has been chronicled from medical journals to the evening news.
“60 Minutes” produced a gut-wrenching piece on how Alzheimer’s not only took its toll on a most loving, dedicated husband, but also wiped out the couple’s life savings, resulting in the same, albeit delayed, outcome: assisted living or a nursing home. If something is so scary and the outcome is so hopeless and debilitating, why aren’t we doing more, every day, to hold it at bay?
Mental fitness is as important as physical fitness. In a valley that spends millions on staying physically fit, where are our mental-health clubs? Well, actually, they are all around us (think-tanks, galleries, libraries, social centers). It is their importance that is understated. So let’s break it down.
“What is good for your heart is good for your brain” was a takeaway from geriatric psychologist Dr. Jules Rosen, chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health, when he spoke to a packed room at the Basalt Regional Library last year. For some reason, we are more obsessed with our physical health than its mental companion (maybe because that mass of gray matter is hidden under our thick skulls).
The good news is that all those good things you are doing for heart health are positively affecting your brain. The Cleveland Clinic identifies six “pillars of brain health,” including exercise, nutrition, sleep/relaxation, medical health, mental stimulation and socialization. Yes! Even the amount of time you spend with your family and friends has a direct affect on your memory (although I would argue that some family members are best forgotten).
As a Valley, we earn top scores for physical fitness (some more than others). Eating properly (or the ability to do so) also scores high (can you say “Whole Foods?”). Hypertension, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking and head trauma (did you have to attempt those moguls?) are known to increase your risk of dementia and are all manageable, but that is a personal choice (and I am not even going there).
Where we could all do a little more, to actually improve the brain function, is in relaxation, mental stimulation and socialization (especially for the lonely and geographically isolated among us). Stress is a very bad influence on brain health. There are studies that suggest that chronic stress can actually shrink the part of the brain that controls learning and memory. Relaxation, through mindfulness and meditation on a regular basis, has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain and increase function, performance and sleep. It also may reduce the buildup of that notorious plaque associated with Alzheimer’s. So relax and give me an Ohhhm!
Mental stimulation is all around us, but with our busy schedules, it is too easy to skip. Learning new things (a language, recipe or routine), being creative and contemplating a new perspective have been linked to the growth of new brain cells (neurons) and an increase in the density between the pathways between those cells (synapses), which is a good thing. Neuroplasticity (I just enjoy saying that word) — the ability to form those new connections — allows the brain to reorganize itself and may provide a buffer against dementia. Read a book, write a poem, play Sudoku or complete the daily crossword puzzle. Each of these activities involves problem-solving and deeper thinking with which you may reduce your risk of dementia by as much as 63 percent.
I recently started volunteer-teaching a Total Brain Health class. For $30, participants get an hour-plus for seven-eight weeks of evidence-based (meaning methods scientifically proven) class that reveals the simple, easy and rewarding ways to keep your brain healthy. Given the importance of a useful, meaningful brain workout, I am surprised it is not more in demand. I have learned a lot teaching this class and have hatched a few neurons in the process.
It has been fun learning multifaceted techniques, such as juggling with a friend to a musical beat that stimulates the brain on several levels. (The giggling was the best part!) We shared trivia (who knew that the avocado is also known as the “alligator pear?”), practiced our SAA-TAA-NAA-MAA chant, solved crazy rebus pictograms and took on logic puzzles that revealed that it was Sally who came in second with her chocolate pie.
So get to it! Move it (exercise), think it (the deeper, the better) and appreciate it. If you need a refresher on brain fitness skills, take a class. Bottom line is that if you don’t continue to nurture and stimulate your brain, it will wither away faster than the seasons.
Mary Kenyon has been the Pitkin County Aging Well Coordinator for the past five years. She practices her brain fitness by writing this column. Email her your brain-challenging issues at firstname.lastname@example.org