Alzheimer’s and Dementia are two of the cruelest diseases known and the ones that frighten me the most. I can’t imagine what it’s like to slowly slip into a fog and not remember where you are, who you are or be told the lady in the room you don’t recognize is actually your wife of 50 years.
It’s unfortunate that nursing homes are filled with people that barely recognize their friends and family that come to visit. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie “The Notebook”, you understand what I’m talking about. Is there anything we can do now to help prevent these diseases or should we sit and wait for science to develop a magic pill for us?
I don’t know about any magic pill, but there is research that shows there are things we can do to help ward off the effects of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. But, before I divulge the secret-sauce of mind disease prevention, I need to explain a property of the brain that may be contrary to what you already know.
Did you realize that our brains have the ability to physically change no matter how old we are! A brain that is 70 years old is just as capable of learning and changing as a brain that is 30 years old. This property is called neuroplasticity and
John wrote an insightful article titled Science Proves You Can Improve Your Mind which also discusses research conducted with Buddhist monks. In John’s article he wrote “Mental training can improve your mind by physically changing the structure of your brain.” Hmm, so it seems you can teach an old dog, new tricks. Everything you have experienced, learned and seen has been encoded within millions of networks or pathways of neurons within your brain.
It’s these networks that allow us to remember faces, names, places and experiences. Have you ever been called a ‘muscle head’? Well, if you were, I hope you weren’t to upset because in some ways our brains do behave like muscles. If you don’t use a muscle, it eventually atrophies and dies. Conversely, if you exercise a muscle it will get stronger . Our brain works the same way – it must be kept active, or it too will atrophy and wither away, just like a muscle that is seldom used. So, what is the secret-sauce of mind disease prevention?
Our brains must be kept active through learning and through regular vigorous exercise. As long as you keep learning new things, your neural networks will remain strong and your brain will act like a spry young kid. It’s when you stop learning that you loose mental performance and you slowly start down the path towards the permanent fog. It’s up to you and only you to exercise your brain and keep it young.
There is a long standing belief that when the brain is young, it learns quickly and by the time we’re in our twenties, it becomes ‘set in it’s ways’. It was also believed that you cannot replace brain cells that are lost. Research has shown this is no longer true. Brain cells can and do regenerate in certain areas of your brain up until your last breath is taken. I know the brain is amazing, but how does it regenerate itself?
It’s simple really – our thoughts (which are non-physical) can and do impact the physical structure of our brains. Let me repeat that: Our thoughts impact and change the physical structure of our brains. Here’s something a little more strange – if one continues to think negative thoughts versus positive thoughts, the chemistry of the brain physically changes! Again, your thoughts can and do effect the physical world.
When you learn something new, the neurons in your brain physically change by making new pathways. New pathways are needed to store and retrieve the information you’ve just learned. The more you repeat an activity or attach an emotion to it, the stronger those linkages become allowing you to easily remember the material. Your performance on a task will improve the more you repeat the task – your brain pathways are continually refined and strengthened. By exercising your brain and learning something new, your brain physically changes. Simply amazing.
The Secret Sauce to Keeping your Brain Young
1. Become a life long learner. Looking to reduce your chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease? Not looking forward to dementia? Then learn, learn, and learn some more. Your brain continuously changes and strengthens its networks the more you learn. There was a reporter that asked a 100 year old lady if she had any regrets in her life. She said she had one. She wished she started playing the violin when she was 60 – she could have been playing the violin for 40 years. Wow.
2. Remain physically active. Not all activities need to be mental in order to keep your brain young. Working out, walking, running, swimming or any physical activity is good for your brain. Your brain enjoys fresh oxygen.
3. Play video games. I believe playing video games is not as bad as some people may think. You’re solving complex problems, using mental visualization to track your progress and in many cases experiencing a state of Flow as you try to advance to the next level.
4. Perform memory exercises. As learning puts new things into our minds, we too must exercise our ability to recall information and memories.
5. Meditate. This is perhaps the ultimate in mental exercise. Volumes have been written on the benefits of meditation.
6. Maintain a positive mental attitude. As I mentioned before, our thoughts impact the chemistry of our brains. Positive thoughts, positive chemistry. Negative thoughts, negative chemistry. I know I need all the help I can get – only positive thoughts for me.