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Time To Make Your Brain Sweat (Like Perspire)!

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.

 

Do you feel like you are not quite as sharp mentally as you used to be? Does it take a moment longer to respond to a question? Are recalling names a bit of a challenge? Guess what, welcome to your aging brain. Cognitive decline (reasoning, planning, thinking, memory) starts around age 25! We don’t notice the mental slips until we are age 50 or so. Then we are experiencing these aging changes at a much faster pace. This is the time that we are getting a little concerned about our brain function and the nightmare of having dementia is lurking in the dark corners of our minds.

Time to take a deep breath and pay attention to what is really happening. Our brains are going through many changes as we age. Mental decline is not an inevitable part of aging. We can improve our brain function as we age. Our brain adapts to our environment good or bad. It is important to realize that physical exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells. Now, let’s discuss how challenging our brain will allow us to create new neural pathways and build cognitive reserve.


Cognitive reserve refers to the brain’s ability to operate effectively even when the function is disrupted. It also refers to the amount of damage that the brain can sustain before changes in cognition are evident (Dr. Sarah McKay). When we challenge our brain in new and complex environments, we are stimulating the connections between neurons. Repetition of activities and experiences strengthens neural pathways and connections (synapses). This process can be summarized by the saying “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. When we are exposed to more complex and novel environments, our brain continues this process of creating more neural circuitry and increased dense, complex synaptic connections resulting in increased thickness of the cerebral cortex. What the heck does all that mean and what difference does it make to all of us?


As we get older, or when we are experiencing extreme stress, we are losing neurons and connections. The volume of our brain decreases, and there is trouble with focus and concentration, while memory formation and recall can be more difficult. When we are building cognitive reserve, we are strengthening our brain. We are capitalizing on the brain’s ability to grow new cells and new connections. This is extraordinarily important as we age so that we have a fighting chance of delaying the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. More cognitive reserve for a higher functioning brain is possible for all of us. We all have different levels of the cognitive reserve to work with. The differences are caused by genetics, education, occupation, lifestyle, leisure activities, or other life experiences.


Mental activities can build cognitive reserve. This is especially important when we have made a life change such as retirement. Our novel and complex environment of the workplace needs to be replaced by activities that stimulate our brains. These activities need to be new and challenging, complex, and varied. Once you have mastered a mental activity your brain is on autopilot, and you are not creating those new neural pathways or connections any more. Only when the activity is challenging do you make your brain sweat (!) and you are causing changes. So, the occasional crossword puzzle or Sudoku game is not going to make the grade. If you make each of these more challenging by increasing the difficulty of putting a timer on completion, are you going to experience the benefit of challenging your brain?


Here are some suggestions for mental challenging activities:

  • Jigsaw puzzle over 500 pieces – the spatial relationship of pieces; seeing how the small piece fits within the big picture

  • Opt for arithmetic rather than a calculator – try adding up your grocery bill as you go through the store and see how close you come to the total bill

  • Read more – maximize the benefit by being part of a book club and discussing what you have read

  • Play mind-stretching games, like bingo (focus and concentration), bridge (strategy), chess (strategy)

  • Stay socially active – join a choir or gardening club, bowling team, or golf team

  • Take up a new interest – learn to knit or embroider (concentration and focus, fine motor movement); try gardening (planning and exercise)

  • Start a course, day, or evening class – your brain loves life-long learning

  • Go out more with a friend – broaden your horizons – enjoy the theater, galleries, and museums and then discuss what you liked or disliked about what you saw

  • Continue working or do volunteer work – social contact helps your memory and concentration (www.nidirect.gov/uk)

If someone has already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is there any reason to have them participate in mentally stimulating activities? There has been scientific research to determine what impact, if any, mental stimulation has on individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists analyzed 15 studies involving 718 men and women with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The activities they participated in included word games, puzzles, discussions of current events, and a whole range of enjoyable activities aimed at stimulating thinking and memory.


Music, baking, and indoor gardening were also considered to be mentally stimulating. Activities like watching TV or going to physical therapy were not considered to be cognitively stimulating. The individuals participated in these activities for 45 minutes twice a week. The researchers found that mental stimulation improved scores on memory and thinking tests for those with dementia, equivalent to about a six to nine-month delay in worsening of symptoms. Other findings showed that those with dementia who participated in these activities had increased feelings of well-being and a better quality of life, including improved communication and interactions with those around them.


However, these activities did not improve their mood and they were still not able to better care for themselves or function independently. Those with advanced stages of dementia did not seem to benefit at all from mental stimulation.


Initially, when people hear about mental stimulation as part of a brain-healthy lifestyle, they immediately think of electronic brain games. These games are good if you look at the context in which they are used. The biggest complaint with the National Institute of Health is that these games have not been scientifically proven to increase cognitive function in a sustainable manner. There are focused targets for improving the speed of processing, concentration, focus, attention, memory, and other skills. The games are complex, and you can get better at performing the games.


That is where the rub is, is your brain functioning at a higher level because you use these games or are you just getting better at the games? You can bet that there has been ongoing in-depth research into this. These games are a billion-dollar business. They are going to continue to get better, and they will be effective. What everyone needs to remember at this point is that mental stimulation using brain games can benefit your brain health if you include it as one piece of the brain healthy lifestyle. There are no magic bullets in the brain game, and it takes an all-out effort to change your brain. But the benefits certainly are worth the effort.


Make your brain sweat – challenge it every day in every way. Your brain function will be noticeably better.


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 Masters 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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