Author’s note: I won’t be here to host this morning, because as you read this I will be enroute to Indianapolis, where my family is throwing a belated birthday party for me this weekend. Hopefully the topic will provide a jumping off point for our usually lively discussion in my absence! And as always, off-topic is just fine too!
Did you know that this is Brain Awareness Week? We are all aging, even the younger folks among us — and our brains are becoming less agile and more prone to forgetfulness or confusion. But the human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even an old person’s brain can grow new neurons. Most age-related losses in motor skills or memory are a result of inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, with our brains, just as with our bodies, it’s “use it or lose it.”
The term neuroplasticity (brain plasticity) refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses because of changes in behavior, environment or neural processes. Our brains have the ability to change, based on activity-dependent functions, also called activity-dependent plasticity. A simple example is a left-handed person “training” herself to use her right hand equally well, through repeated practice. Speech therapy is another good example where the brain is trained through repetition to make the lips and tongue form sounds differently (correctly). We often read about how individuals who have lost an ability because of a major body injury can regain that ability — because their brains can learn to do the same thing in a different way.
We can do both physical and mental exercises that will help keep us sharp as we age. The Franklin Institute, a science museum in Philadelphia PA, provides a website with both types of exercises to improve our brain functions, as well as links to many studies that have been done about their effectiveness.
- Mental Exercise for a Better Brain
- Physical Exercise for a Better Brain
- There also are studies on the aging brain.
Our local hospital has a program known as Brainworks that offers classes and programs focused on brain health. The Brainworks website offers Games for Your Brain, and a link to Fit Brains, with many brain fitness games and activities. A friend who is a pharmacist and has worked with the hospital says they also recommend brain exercises from Lumosity. You can register there, take a short survey about your needs, and they’ll automatically generate brain exercises based on those needs. You can pay for more in-depth consulting and resources, $6.70 per month if you purchase a yearly plan, but the initial set of brain exercises is free and fun to explore.
Many people use games like crosswords and Sudoku to sharpen their minds. But the more you repeat these activities, the less challenging they become: doing them only traces over-learned pathways in the brain. To actually get smarter, scientists figured out that your brain needs activities that are both challenging and adaptive. By exposing your brain to constant, fresh stimulation, you’ll create new neural pathways and change existing ones – part of a concept called neuroplasticity.
Everyday Health has 10 tips for keeping your brain active. The most surprising (to me) is this one:
Take a twenty-minute nap every afternoon that you can manage it. A daytime nap will produce nearly as much skill-memory enhancement as a whole night of sleep. So after you have taken a class or engaged in some other learning situation in the morning, consolidate that information by napping for a brief time in the afternoon after lunch when you’re most likely to feel tired and fall asleep easier.
That’s probably enough to get discussion started on what I find to be a fascinating topic: how to keep our brains in good shape as we age. Do you do activities to stimulate your brain? Are you exercising your body and eating foods that are known to help your brain? Have you tried such things as meditation or yoga, and do you see a difference? How about the mental stimulation that results from political activism? Social interaction with friends? Do tell us about what works for you!
Photo: Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. Author: John A Beal, PhD Dep’t. of Cellular Biology & Anatomy, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport. Modified by DavoO.