Keep Your Aging Brain Strong

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Sagging skin, wrinkles, diminished eyesight, and so much more are the beautiful and visible reminders of aging. But it isn’t just the outside that ages—our brain ages, too.

With the passing years, our brain shrinks in size, changing the speed and ability at times for processing complex information. For example, we may find ourselves entering a room and forgetting what we were looking for or finding that somebody’s name or a word takes much longer to recall. A delay in recall or becoming more vulnerable to inattention due to distractions can be a normal part of an aging brain.

However, what is not a normal part of aging is short-term memory loss—forgetting information in 30 second to 2 minute intervals of time, significant changes in use of language, getting lost in familiar settings, or impairments in judgment and reasoning skills. These can all be signs of vascular or frontal lobe impairments, or diseases such as Alzheimer’s and should be evaluated by a professional.

To keep our brains healthy well into our later years, we need to focus on preventative wellness. Many of the same things we need to do to keep our hearts healthy do the same for the brain—eating healthy, exercising, and remaining socially active. However, there are some additional factors to consider when focusing on the health of our brain.

The human brain is powered with 100 billion nerve cells or neurons that communicate with each other through electrical and chemical processes. Each neuron can create or form thousands of links resulting in a staggering 100 trillion synapses or connections. We used to believe that the brain was hard-wired and after a certain developmental stage, no changes were possible. However, with the development of better neuroimaging technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we can now visually see how the brain can reorganize itself. The ability of the brain to reorganize itself both functionally and structurally simply by changing our thoughts, emotions, behavior, and environment is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is what allows the brain to recover after strokes or injuries as the brain can create new neuronal connection to compensate around the damaged connections. For example, the more we practice a task or repeat a thought, the more intense neuronal connections are made. When we engage in routine and over learned behaviors, the brain becomes lazy and disinterested in making new connections. But creating new connections is important to overall brain health.

Many of us take pride in our ability to multi-task and actually may criticize those who are only able to do one thing at time. Recent research has demonstrated that when we think we are multitasking or engaging in several tasks simultaneously, our brain is actually switching back and forth between tasks and ultimately wasting brainpower. Yep, it turns out that our poor brain is using tremendous energy moving back and forth between the multiple tasks that we are trying to simultaneously engage in and in the process losing valuable resources.

We all have our peak times of the day—those times when we feel most rested, clear in our thinking, and focused. For morning people, their peak time may be in the early hours, while for others, it may be late in the evening. During these peaks hours is when we are most able to solve analytic problems that require deep concentration and a systematic approach, like solving a math problem. However, it is also important to exercise the creative part of our brain. Researchers suggest that insight oriented problems or creation of concepts requires some distractions. That’s right, period of distractions and fatigue may also be good for our brains. Here is how it works: When we are at our peak times, we are laser-focused and able to filter out most distractions. This allows us to remain attentive and solve complex analytic problems. But during our off-peak times when we are fatigued, our mind may move from distraction to distraction, leaving us less focused on one thing. It is during these times that the brain is free to make new connections between seemingly unrelated topics. This is where creativity, innovation, and insight can develop.

The creation of new connections in the brain is at the core of “out of the box” problem-solving and insight orientated solutions. Further, the establishment of new neuronal connections keeps the brain strong.

Protect your brain by eating healthy proteins, leafy green vegetable, dark chocolate, and Omega-3 rich foods like salmon and lentils. Stay hydrated. Laugh often. Exercise regularly. Create new ideas, friendships, and experiences and your brain will thank you.