by Nigel Brown
We used to believe that the brain is a fixed and rigid entity with a limited window of development opportunity. Traditional thinking taught us that this critical period occurred early in life and new skill development could not happen beyond that point. Similarly, the ideas that brain disease is inevitable with advanced age, and that once the brain is damaged it cannot be treated or healed – was generally accepted.
Well, not so; in recent years these ideas have been challenged by research and new learning. Indications are that a proactive approach to brain health and fitness can be implemented at the earliest stage of life and continued throughout the entire life span. Brain health experts believe we can shape our brains for health by exposing ourselves to a specific environment and by engaging in distinct activities as often as possible.
Research indicates there are five critical areas in maintaining our brain health, or cognitive capacity. These are: socialization in community; physical activity; mental stimulation; spirituality; and nutrition. These areas, when integrated, have been documented to foster brain health and to reduce the risk of dementia. These five areas define an optimum “brain health lifestyle” and each of us has the opportunity to enhance our commitment to nurturing and enhancing these aspects in our daily lives.
When it comes to physical activity, many boomers are engaged in aerobic fitness and strength training; we can feel and see the difference this effort delivers. However, we pay far less attention to our brain muscle – “exercising” it less often, if at all. It’s as if we believe it will continue to perform optimally without conscious new and complex exercises.
Studies into brain stimulation confirm that we need to present the brain with ongoing and unfamiliar challenges. Despite some benefits, doing crossword puzzles or games like Sudoku do little to provide on-going stimulation because the brain soon adapts to these repetitive challenges.
Stimulating the brain can literally generate new neurons and strengthen their connections which results in better brain performance and in having a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms. Studies suggest that people who exercise their mental muscles throughout their lives have a 35–40% less risk of manifesting Alzheimer’s
In today’s world there are several advanced technology companies developing brain training software that is scientifically researched and proven for the cognitive benefits they provide. Some of the software products focus on auditory or visual brain skills while others include specialized programs that promote driver safety through on-line activities to quicken reaction time to potentially reduce crash risks.
Whether aided by technology or accessed in more traditional ways, learning a new language is also known to be one of the best ways to boost your brain’s functioning and resilience.
Today, brain health has become correctly acknowledged as an inherent benefit of overall physical fitness. Experts better recognize the link between physical activity and brain stimulation and activities like dancing are particularly noted as providing both physical and cognitive benefits. The complexity of learning new steps such as in ballroom dancing, in particular, is accepted as great for both body and brain fitness.
When it comes to the other three important aspects of positive brain health: community, spirituality and nutrition – books and web resources abound with recommendations, tips and recipes! Bottom line: immerse yourself in formal and informal groups that bring positive interactions and experiences helping you build connections to others. Explore, nurture and build your spirituality whether through main stream religions, meditation or practices such as yoga or walking at peace in nature. Overhaul your diet to include brain boosting foods including rainbow coloured vegetables and fruits, nuts, omega three fats…and, oh yes, current wisdom suggests that glass of Okanagan Merlot is a “good-to-have” too! Learn more at: www.healthybrainmatters.com
Nigel Brown is a Kelowna-based coach and facilitator. He is an advocate for brain health education, involved in elder issues, and helps individuals who are within thinking distance of leaving their primary careers to explore and plan for what comes next. Nigel can be reached at Nigel@HealthyBrainMatters.com 1.250.860.5408