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A Bigger, Better Brain? It Is Your Choice

Written by: Patricia Faust, MGS, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

A few years ago, when I talked about neuroplasticity and the power of the brain to change itself – everyone was amazed. Now the era of brain awareness has finally arrived. Even though I still get astonished looks at this revelation, there are others who believe that they are too old; or it’s too late for them. Here is the miracle about the brain and neuroplasticity: your brain does not know how old you are. It changes until the day you die – for good or bad. It is your choice as to what kind of brain you want! However, there is a new revelation: the brain is even more dynamic than we expected years ago – but we must work to get results!

  A man working on his computer while holding a 3D figure of a brain.

Commitment


Seriously, our brain is constantly changing and adapting to our environment, but we need to be consistent with our thoughts and actions to bring about a lasting change. There seems to be agreement that it takes 21 days of repetition and consistency to form a new neural pathway – that is old thinking. Neuro-research has revealed that this change in neural pathways could take 20 – 254 days. Not only do we need to be consistent and repetitious with new thoughts and actions – we need to be committed. Now that begs the question – we can’t see our brain – how do we know we have created a change? How do we know that we have a fit, healthy brain?


Look at your daily life. Everything you do matters to your brain – good or bad. Do you sit around worrying about your weight while you are watching TV and munching on high-fat snacks? Guess what – your brain won’t like that. You will be sluggish, unhappy, stressed out and your brain will adapt to that environment. You will lose brain volume, have memory problems, not be as productive at work, not be interesting to your spouse, kids, or friends, and probably end up going to the doctor more often. If that is how you are going to treat your brain, your brain will reciprocate.


Brain Fitness


What does it look like when you are ‘brain fit’? Brain fitness is that state of awareness that you are performing well cognitively and emotionally. You are running on all cylinders, maintaining a mental edge, staying sharp, aging successfully. Aging is a broad term in this context because our brain doesn’t know how old we are. Your brain ages in response to lifestyle, chronic diseases, stress, and genes. So, your chronological age may be in the forties, but your brain age may be in the sixties because you live a hard life. You must take responsibility for how you live and the impact it makes on your brain.


Now, your brain is very cool! You treat it better and it will respond to that too. So, if you make a strategic plan to reclaim your brain – your brain will respond – that is the beauty of neuroplasticity. It requires concentrated effort, however. You cannot be complacent about your brain and the life that you live. You can create new neural pathways and grow new brain cells. But you must be all in – not wishy-washy about it. Repetition and consistency will create new neural pathways. And this is where a brain-healthy lifestyle (physical exercise, mental stimulation, nutrition, socialization, sleep, and stress reduction) all play an important part. When you put the effort in to build a better brain, you will experience better health overall. Again, it doesn’t make any difference what your age is. It is totally up to you and your commitment.


Lifestyle


How can you incorporate a brain healthy lifestyle without it seeming like such a hassle? You will have to think differently about how you do or don’t do certain things during the day. But this is a program that needs to be implemented slowly so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. An enriched environment – one that is novel and complex (like your workplace!) will put you in the right circumstances to challenge your brain. If you are not in an enriched environment each day, then you need to create that environment for yourself. This can be accomplished by volunteering, mentoring, consulting, or any other activity that challenges your brain. When you are putting your brain through its paces, it will respond. You will be more engaged, more productive, feel energized. You also might feel stress. But being aware of stressors gives you the upper hand in diffusing them. You want to keep your energy high, so you need to be more mindful of the food you eat and the exercise you get. A brain health lifestyle is very synergistic in that each piece fits together and the sum of your actions is greater than doing each piece separately. For example: you grow new brain cells in your hippocampus, center of new learning and memory, when you engage in physical exercise. If you don’t challenge yourself to learn new things, then the brain gets out its pruner and starts clipping away at the cells and pathways you haven’t used. Grow those cells and then use them. These activities will enable you to build cognitive reserve – thicker synaptic connections that keep your brain more flexible and ultimately offers some protection from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


Cognitive Fitness Strategy


The following is the Cognitive Fitness Strategy: An Action Plan for Brain Health based on the Dana Alliance/Conference Board’s publication ‘Your Brain at Work’.


Write it down


Putting your goals in writing makes them more meaningful. Adding why you want to achieve each goal is a real motivator.


Take baby steps


You’ll feel overwhelmed if you try to address every aspect of brain health at once. Set priorities.


Give yourself a timeframe


And remember: That implies giving yourself enough time to work at and master your goals.


Be realistic


People who try to do too much too soon often get discouraged and give up altogether. Don’t be a victim of your own ambition. If your goals seem impossible, revise them.


Now determine your baseline. Think about how you measure up against the healthy brain practices below:


Social Interaction:


Who did I see today, and for what purposes?


What did I do to reconnect with someone I care about today?


Physical Activity


How many minutes did I walk today, including around the office?


How did I work exercise into my day?


Did I “walk and talk” at work, rather than emailing or phoning?


Cognitive Stimulation


What did I learn today?


What routine task did I approach differently today?


Did I challenge my mind? Did I do anything just for fun?


Stress Management


How was my stress level today?


What caused me the greatest stress today? What triggered it?


How did I cope? How did I relax?


Sleep


How well did I sleep last night? How Long? Did I awaken during the night?


If sleep was poor, do I know why?


Did I feel drowsy during the day?


Did I nap?


How well you answer these questions may help you determine which areas of brain health you need to focus on as you map out your cognitive fitness plan.


(Your Brain at Work, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and The Conference Board)


For more info, follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and visit my website!


 

Patricia Faust, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function, and dementia. She has a Master in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy.


My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach, and consult about brain aging, brain health, and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe, and Canada.


Patricia’s speaking experience spans the spectrum of audiences as she addresses corporate executives on brain function, regional financial professionals on client diminished capacity, and various senior venues concerning issues around brain aging and brain health.

 

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