Brain fitness is a national health priority, as positive adaptation and healthy living clearly improves brain function. The good news is that the brain is adaptable and able to grow new brain cells, and we can increase connections in the brain with our experiences and new learning. It is essential to examine the relationship between our lifestyle and our brain fitness. From before birth, through childhood, adolescence, and through adulthood and beyond we can optimize brain fitness. Continuing education about brain fitness is needed to maximize our potential.
Recent studies have increased our understanding and appreciation of the importance of brain health and brain fitness, whether related to learning in school, participating in sports, work productivity, memory enhancement or mind-body health.
Perception of Brain Health and Fitness
• 9 out of 10 people believe brain fitness can be improved.
• Thinking skills should be routinely checked, like a physical.
• Nearly 3 out of 4 people believe that their doctor is the preferred provider for brain fitness information.
• Brain health is a national priority. What is good for the heart is good for the brain. Lifestyle and brain fitness go hand-in-hand. Brain fitness programs that involve positive adaptation and brain health should begin early in life and continue across the life span.
• The fastest growing population in the U.S. is seniors. There will be an ever increasing demand for more and better services as the 77 million Baby Boomers age, including brain fitness.
• Keeping one’s brain healthy and active can help ensure that mental health keeps pace with physical health.
• Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis have fueled the imagination toward increasing the brain’s connectivity and improving speed of transmission, both of which are based on your experiences and health.
• Cross-training your brain can improve brain fitness integrity; combining a variety of activities in frequency and intensity. Brain workouts have an impressive long lasting potential for maintaining and improving memory function.
• Aerobic exercise 3 hours per week for 3 months helped healthy seniors grow new brain cells in their frontal lobes (increased attention and memory) and corpus callosum (speed of processing)
Memory Enhancing Exercises
There are numerous exercises and behavioral techniques that can be practiced to maximize the capacity and maintain the longevity of memory. The following techniques often used by Dr. Sautter are taken from Clinical Neuropsychology by Snyder, P. J. and Nusbaum, P.D. (1998) and are designed for people with mild-to-moderate memory impairment. The techniques described are not appropriate for everyone, but learning and using just one or two of the methods that are right can greatly improve memory and overall confidence. Dr. Sautter recommends changing one’s thinking about memory by imagining being on “manual” rather than “automatic” pilot. By doing so, one becomes more mindful about using the following strategies.
1. Talk to yourself, either aloud or to yourself about tasks you are performing to keep your mind on the task and help you recall whether the job has been accomplished.
2. Paraphrase and repeat back what you have heard as a way to focus on the conversation and recall the important details.
3. Control the rate at which information is presented to you by taking small breaks and rest between tasks.
4. Reduce interference by limiting distractions, such as turning off the television or radio when having a conversation.
5. When shopping, group items into categories that can later act as reminders. Group grocery store items into fruits, meats and canned goods to assist in recalling the items as you go through the store.
6. Group information assigned in an acronym, which is a word created from the letters of each item in the group. For example, water the plants, write to Ethel and take medicine could be WWETM.
7. Connect new information with old information. When meeting a new person named “Brenda”, compare and contrast her characteristics with those of another person named “Brenda”.
8. Rhyme new information with old.
9. Practice a new task in shorter, more frequent intervals rather than longer and less frequent sessions.
10. To reduce the anxiety of retrieving information, try deep breathing or other relaxation techniques.
11. Caregivers can help out a forgetful loved one by cuing them with the first letter of the word they are looking for or by saying the category of the lost word, like hardware, clothing or food.
Memory Enhancing Devices to Consider:
1. Written reminders. Write yourself a note about a certain task and put it where you will easily see it. Remember to write it down, and always write it down in one place.
2. Timers. To provide an auditory cue for tasks in the future, set a watch alarm, alarm clock or cooking timer to go off when a task needs to be performed.
3. Computerized paging system. Set your paging system to vibrate or produce a tone to display a message about the event or task you need to be reminded of.
4. Electronic Organizer. Besides personal information, you can enter the task you need to perform and the time you need to begin.
5. Digital Voice Recorder. These can store simple information to be used throughout the day to effectively remind you of things to do or even where your car is parked at the mall.
6. Smart Phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). These often have features and apps that can perform many of the above listed functions, and will provide more complex information as well as a connection to the Internet and one’s computer.
Other Areas to Consider:
Maintain physical health by monitoring blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels and calorie intake; immobilization and physical inactivity are to be avoided at all costs.
Stretching exercises and supervised weight-bearing exercises are recommended. The best single exercise done without equipment is standing on one foot for as long as possible and then switching to the other foot and doing the same thing. This combines muscle strengthening, balance, and coordination; make a firm commitment to walk at least four hours a week.
Caffeine and other stimulating drugs (available by prescription) can make more energy resources available in times of decreased enthusiasm and energy reserve; alcohol can be taken in moderation. Monitor closely how much you are actually drinking.
(A note about alcohol: Chemically, alcohol is a liposolvent, meaning it can dissolve lipoprotein-based tissues, such as those found in neurons, at the microscopic level. Frequent alcohol consumption actually accelerates demyelination and neuron cell death.)
Learn the art of napping for short periods during the day. These provide a temporary respite from the day’s activity and lead to improvements in energy, alertness and mood; Melatonin may make sense for nighttime sleep disturbances, but no convincing research exists that it exerts any positive effect on longevity.
Curiosity is the mental trait most often linked to superior brain functioning over the life span. Seek opportunities for sensory stimulation, such as museums, musicals, and Adult Ed courses. Rather than worrying about dementia, take specific steps to make it less likely:
Take the same attitude toward your social life as you do toward your investments: diversify instead of investing in a single area:
If you’re not computer-literate, take some lessons that provide you with the necessary skills to access the internet. This is not a substitute for a social life, but a place to be stimulated with new information, find others who share common interests, and engage in activities (internet bridge groups) that you may not be able to attend outside the home; games like bingo, bridge, and chess help maintain sharpness in different mental domains.
Try to retain a sense of humor and do everything you can to keep up your present friendships and strike up new ones. Try cultivating a few with the younger generation. Loneliness is the greatest challenge to overcome as you advance toward the mature years. Build up your tolerance for being alone; find pleasure in your own company; consider a pet.
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