Saturday, August 30, 2008

Stress's Brain Drain

You are stressed. So what else is new.

And you may think that, well, whatever, I'll relax when I'm dead (or retired, whichever comes first). I've got way to much work to accomplish to let concerns over stress slow me down.

And that's the problem. Stress does slow you down
-- your brain, that is. Whether you have "a lot to accomplish" or not, you cannot escape the fact that stress causes stress hormones that can lead to the atrophy, shrinkage, of the brain areas (hippocampus, prefrontal cortex) vital brain region for episodic, spatial, and contextual memory (now see here).

E
ven for short term stresses that only last a few hours can impair brain-cell communication in areas associated with learning and memory (now see here). This isn't caused by cortisol, but through another pathway of corticotropin releasing hormones.

The solution? You cannot turn off the world, but you can work with it more effectively. Focus on high quality, and low quantity -- that includes your daily To-Do check list as well. If you need a rule, try this.

Simplify.

To Sleep, Perchance To Remember

Get a good night's sleep. It's good for your brain, and may contribute to neurogenesis, the formation of new nerve cells (see the study).
WHY is sleep good for your brain? WHY does it help you remember better? It's not clear to anyone (and research science has some speculations it's checking into), but the bottom line is that sleeping well creates conditions that make you perform at your peak.
It's not just about getting abed by 10:00 every night. A 45-minute midday nap can help you boost memory and remember facts too. This particular result (see here) applies to pulling back the facets of your life that you've already learned.

Friday, August 29, 2008

We Are People People

"Poor social connections, infrequent participation in social activities, and social disengagement predict the risk of cognitive decline in elderly individuals." Read the full article here.

Science to English Translation:
Being a hermit is hazardous to your health!

Humans are social animals and part of our wiring is set up to engage with other humans. Call me crazy, but it just makes complete sense that we should interact with others, especially as we get older.

In fact, "social interaction" is a key factor that increases your chances of having a healthy brain. Some measures of "social interaction" include how often you talk on the phone with friends, neighbors and relatives, how often you get together with them, how many people you can share private feelings and concerns with ... etc.

In one study, a U.S. team found that talking to another person for just 10 minutes a day -- 10 minutes a day!! -- improved memory and test scores. Engaging with other people was just as effective as more traditional kinds of mental exercise in boosting memory and intellectual performance.

And the more social interaction you have, the better your improvements the cognitive functioning.

No one really knows why in the world being a social animal may have a protective effect on the brain (it's also associated with lower blood pressure and longer life expectancies). Regardless, the effect is strong and we should all take note and "mix and mingle to the jingling beat", get to know your neighbors, your family, and your co-workers.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Brain Aerobics

Thinking about thinking games is not enough. You have to actually DO those thinking games.

But according to research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the chances of you "slip sliding away" into the cognitive fog of dementia can be reduced by a whopping 75% by playing mental games. Here's the summary.

What kind of thinking stimulants do you need?
  • Cards
  • Checkers
  • Chess
  • Crosswords
  • Sudoku puzzles
  • Scrabble
  • Math calculations (ditch the caculator ... on purpose!)
Sometimes when you say, "let's play cards" or "let's play scrabble", you are met with the groan of an inertia that pulls us into inaction. That said, once you get going, they do have fun (provided you have an age appropriate game).

You can make it a part of your own traditions to be "game players". This sets a pattern of mental fun and stimulation that will benefit them long after they've forgotten about your killer-triple-word-score-rally-from-behind-to-trounce-the-field maneuver.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Learn To Learn To Learn

Here's what we know:
The more you learn, the healthier your brain becomes. The mental gymnastics don't have to be strenuous, either. They just have to be consistent.

So here's the problem:
We typically believe that learning is what you do in school. If there is no school, no classes, no homework, and no lesson plan, there is just no new learning.

This attitude is as normal as it is plain wrong.

Engaging in new activities that get you to think (a bit more than when you watch Seinfeld re-runs) can help reduce dementia. Read this study summary.

This is NOT about memorizing facts and figures. It is about challenging yourself to do something new; something that requires you to work to gain a new skill. Read this study summary.

The best news is that continued learning (a new dance, a new art form, a new sport, or a new social venture) does keep you from sliding, but it can also actually improve brain function. Just like weight training enhances the muscles (so they are better able to do weight training), interacting with the world enhances your brain (so it is better able to think, remember, and reason).

Here are some suggestions:

  • Pick up a new musical instrument.
  • Start a small business.
  • Get a new hobby (crafts, painting, biking, hiking, model boat building, etc).
  • Learning a foreign language.
  • Volunteer for a cause that matters for you.
  • Take cooking classes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Exercise on the Brain

Do it. Find something. Something that you can love that makes you move, and do that.

Being active does a lot of things for your heart, and for your circulatory system. In essence, it keeps the pipes clean. Here is a great summary from Harvard if you want to read more.

Your brain is a glucose pig:
Your white and gray matter both are absolute gluttons for the energy in your body. Despite weighing in at only 2 % of the body's mass, it mows through 60 % of the energy coursing through our bloodstreams -- that's about 450 calories each day.

If the energy pipelines (your arteries) are clogged, crudded or even narrowed, your little energy pig will slowly choke. Little by little you will lose function.

One of the very best ways to keep the energy pipeline open is to be active every day. Get outside. Play. Run. Walk. Dance. Garden. Bike. Hike. .... Just do something, and do it consistently.

We'll talk about foods later, but let's just start with the obvious. If you want to be able to think better, be active at something you enjoy every day.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Brain Power

Your brain is the biggest energy hog in your body, and for good reason. This 2-3 pound convoluted, gyrating, fat-filled lump contains roughly 100 billion brain cells. Each of these are linked up with up to 10,000 connections each.

By the way:
It's true. There are more possible interconnecting pathways in your brain than atoms in the Universe.

It's false. You do in fact use more than 10% of your brain.

Heading back to school
Your brain can get better at what it does, or worse, depending on a number of factors. We will review these with you over the next two weeks.

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