In the past, medical experts believed that only a child’s brain had the capacity to develop and change. The assumption was that after an individual reached maturity, her brain stopped growing.
We know better today. (Whew!) In the past three decades, science has confirmed that while the infant brain shows the greatest rate of growth, the adult brain is, in fact, plastic. The brain can and does adapt, change, and even grow throughout our lifetimes.
As a savvy, intelligent woman, you clearly will recognize the opportunity for fabulous, elegant living this reveals. What a worthwhile goal: to enjoy everything life has to offer by staying sharp, thinking clearly, and using your capacity for complex problem solving even as you age.
All you need to keep your brain functioning in top condition is the will to do it—check!—and a little bit of know-how. Read on to discover some easy-to-add practices that are proven to sustain and improve memory, clarity, and everyday brain power.
Modern research demonstrates that your existing synapses—the chemical and electrical pathways that connect neurons, allowing complex functions—are strengthened whenever you practice a familiar skill. But studies also show that you can create new synapses at any time by exposing your brain to the unfamiliar.
The interesting finding is that complexity doesn’t matter. Even the simplest new movements, tasks, or ideas will encourage your brain to start construction on a synapse.
Here are a few ways to shake up the routine and turn ordinary actions into synapse-building brain challenges.
- Take a different route to work.
- Use your mind and body simultaneously. For example, read a book while standing.
- Open doors and drawers, work your computer mouse, brush your teeth, lift your cup or fork, or answer the phone using your non-dominant hand.
- Go to a yoga session instead of your usual spin class.
- Handwrite a note instead of emailing it.
- Rise above your health history.
Modern research tells us that even in cases of potentially catastrophic injury or disease, the brain has a greater capacity to overcome than was once thought.
In a normally healthy brain, neural plasticity—its ability to reshape and rewire itself—is what allows function to return when areas of the brain are damaged. Those new synapses I mentioned above? A brain that is plastic builds these pathways around damaged tissue, literally bypassing the problem.
If you have a family history of Alzheimer’s or other dementia, I know it’s hard not to worry when you find you’ve misplaced your purse or forgotten a close friend’s birthday. But here’s a surprise: An active, well cared-for brain can fend off the effects of disease that, in a less healthy individual, might prove debilitating.
Recent studies show that people who later were discovered to have the brain plaques characterizing Alzheimer’s, were nevertheless able to learn, adapt, and function well just by keeping their brains active.
So then, let’s get cracking on some brain-activating exercises! Here are a few moves to add to your program of “cognitive calisthenics”:
- Read, especially in a subject or genre new to you.
- Do puzzles and games, especially those that require logic and verbal skills.
- Explore creative pursuits like painting or playing music.
- Interact socially, especially when you combine it with physical movement. (Dancing, anyone?)
- And speaking of exercise…
People who are physically active have fewer symptoms of mental decline as they age than those who are sedentary. According to a study released just this month, the earlier in your life you begin your fitness regimen, the greater the chance you will continue to retain your full range of cognitive functions well into your senior years.
Not 20 years old anymore? So what. I firmly believe it’s never too late to start a good wellness habit. Increasing your physical activity doesn’t have to be complicated: Just lace up some supportive shoes and go for a walk. Today would be good—or how about right now?
But don’t delay any longer. That first step of a short walk may be where your road to a sharper, quicker, more focused mind starts. And don’t forget, a little cardio relieves stress and loosens tense muscles and tired joints, too. It’s a win-win.
- Be MINDful about lifestyle choices.
Putting in a few extra hours at work this week? Skipping the gym, lunch breaks, or favorite activities because “I don’t have any time right now”? Are you going out of your way to assist family and friends while you shelve your own interests?
I get it. For committed, driven women, it can be truly difficult to draw a line between what’s necessary, and what that “just one more thing” mentality tells us we ought to squeeze in on top of what we simply must do. But I can assure you, sooner or later, neglecting yourself will stretch your physical and mental resources beyond their limits.
Foggy thinking, lack of focus, memory loss, slow decision-making, and a tendency to avoid problems rather than solve them—these are signs that your brain is suffering from overwhelm. Throw in a few unpredictable midlife hormone shifts, and you have a recipe for failure.
- Dial down stress. Unchecked stress leads to inflammation, a condition that can affect the brain just as it does other body systems.
- Don’t skip meals. Coffee and a scone on the go will never give you the renewal you’d gain from a real workday lunch break. (Hint: Step away from the desk.) For optimal mind-body health, be sure your diet includes plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables as well as healthy fats such as those found in fish, olive oil, and nuts.
- Get enough rest. Determine when your day needs to begin, then commit to going to bed no fewer than seven hours earlier. Your overworked brain will repay you with sharper, more focused thinking in the morning.
As with all other areas of wellness, your ability to stay sharp mentally often depends upon making smart choices. What a gift to know that we absolutely can be on top of our games, at every age! Having a hard time putting your mind-healthful changes in place? Give me a call at 212-686-0939. I’m here to support your goals for physical wellness—and to cheer you in your quest to preserve your brainpower, too.