Keeping the brain healthy as you age

Krystal Simpson Healthy Living
Krystal Simpson
Healthy Living

We can develop new connections in the brain, even into old age – so yes, you can teach that old dog new tricks!

Here’s a new twist on those old New Year’s resolutions. Have you ever thought about getting your brain in shape? Keeping your brain active is as important as being physically active. And like any other part of your body, your brain needs to be worked out to stay healthy. So maybe it’s time to put the brain on a fitness program. Ready, set, learn!

Find some good habits to help exercise your brain.
Find some good habits to help exercise your brain.

The brain is a fascinating, fantastic organ. It contains an estimated 86 billion neurons, which are specialized cells that transmit information. These neurons are connected by a network of synapses, which link the neurons together. These pathways allow the neurons to communicate with each other. On average, the brain generates about 50,000 thoughts per day and produces enough electrical energy to power a light bulb. Your brain uses about 20 per cent of the circulating blood in your body and has 100,000 miles of blood vessels.

Research over the last 30 years has revealed that these connections in the brain, our neural pathways, are not fixed once we reach adulthood. The consensus amongst neuroscientists used to be that the brain remained relatively static after a critical period in childhood development. With advances in brain scanning technologies like MRIs and PET scans, researchers discovered that we can develop new connections in the brain, even into old age. The brain never stops learning, so you can teach that old dog new tricks!

The ability of the brain to adapt and change is referred to as neuroplasticity. Plasticity comes from the Greek word plastos, which means to mould. Whenever something new is learned or memorized, neuroplasticity occurs in the brain. When this happens, you are building new neural connections, or strengthening existing ones. Dr. Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist and author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, describes it this way: “Your brain continues to make new connections throughout life in response to mental activity, which means that cognitive function can be improved, regardless of age.”

In essence, throughout a lifetime, the brain fine-tunes itself to meet your needs. For example, let’s say an individual signs up for a dance class to finally learn how to tango. The brain will forge new pathways to tell the body how to perform that tango step. The more they practice the tango, the stronger that pathway will become.

However, these same connections can shrink or atrophy with age. The old adage “use it or lose it” is particularly true when it comes to the brain. As we get older, the brain starts to experience normal age-related declines just like every other part of the body. Blood flow in the brain is reduced as arteries narrow and some cognitive functions deteriorate, such as the speed at which we process information.

The good news? You can whip that older brain into shape! A study funded by the American National Institute on Aging found that short mental workouts helped seniors stay mentally fit for at least five years. The mental workouts, performed on a computer, included memorization, reasoning (looking for patterns in numbers or letters) and speed training (quickly identifying objects that flashed on the screen). The even better news was that participants were able to transfer these improved skills to real life events, like understanding instructions on a medicine bottle or reading a road sign faster.

So, for the start of the New Year, here are some things you can do to improve your own mental fitness.

  • Learn something new! Remember neuroplasticity? The brain is a learning machine, and needs to be continually challenged to stay sharp. A neuron that no longer receives any stimulation will eventually die off. So take that dance class, sign up for guitar lessons, learn a new language, play ping-pong, do the crossword puzzle, learn how to play bridge, take up woodworking, re-design your garden or just discover something new that you love to do. Dr. Merzenich said the two key components to spark learning in the brain are, “anything that closely engages your focus and is strongly rewarding.”
  • Exercise – yes, fit people have fit brains. Exercise elevates your heart rate, which means more blood and oxygen are being pumped throughout the body, including your brain. More blood flow means more nutrients like glucose are reaching the brain. To make exercise really count, try something new that will challenge your mind and your body. Take up a sport like racquetball, for example, which requires considerable hand-eye co-ordination skills.
  • Stay socially connected and active in retirement – mental fitness can decline in retirement when an individual is no longer engaged in a stimulating work routine. Research suggests that regular volunteering is a great way to stay mentally sharp as you enter the golden years.
  • Try some brain fitness apps – If you have a smart phone, tablet or iPad, you can download specialized brain training apps. For about $12, you can purchase a subscription for a month. Look for a program that has a variety of games that will challenge you, adjust to your skill level and keep track of your progress. A good app to start with is Lumosity. It’s been around the longest and consistently receives great reviews. Lumosity has 70 million users, more than 50 games and works with scientists from over 40 universities to develop their training tools.

Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline. If you are interested in volunteering with Victoria Lifeline, please call 204-956-6773.

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