How will you protect your brain health as you age? I recently had a discussion about that topic with a friend who is in her 60s and has a family history of dementia. She told me that she works the New York Times crossword puzzle daily to exercise her gray matter.
Crosswords are good, but they aren’t the “be all and end all” as far as brain health. In fact, I personally believe the best way to encourage brain health is to consider a mental exercise program that parallels the various components — cardiovascular exercise, strength exercise, flexibility exercise and balance exercise — we’re encouraged to do for physical health. That way, you exercise more areas of your brain. And researchers are finding that our brains can continue to develop as we age.
What we all need to strive for is “neuroplasticity.” That term describes how the brain is able to reorganize itself by creating new neural connections and changing its chemistry. These changes occur when we learn something new or experience new situations and changes in our environment. The new connections are important because we’re building mental reserves that will serve us well as we age.
Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb cleverly said, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Thus, we need to remember that every feeling, thought, experience and physical sensation triggers the brain’s neural network. For example, the joy and wonder experienced while visiting a new place (complete with novel sights, smells, sounds, tastes, etc.) cause our brain’s neurons to reconfigure. That’s why we need to choose wisely and feed new experiences to our brain.
So back to my friend. While she (rightfully) should be proud about her success rate in solving the crossword puzzles, I would argue that she’s not getting a huge boost in brain health because she’s a former high school English teacher. Therefore, she’s using the same part of her brain. However, she also is learning new strokes in her weekly swimming classes. It’s the novelty of these movements that will cause her brain to build new neural pathways.
We are not guaranteed to have continual brain growth as we age. The researchers have a term for this, “negative plasticity.” This means our ability to learn and remember is hampered. Negative plasticity can happen because of short-term events such as being in a loud room or consuming too much alcohol. However, chronic stress and depression as well as extended bad habits can lead to long-term negative plasticity. Therefore, it’s important to be careful about what experiences to include in daily life.
4 Steps to Build Your Brain Health
There are many ways to improve your brain’s resilience. Here are some to try:
- Move your body. Physical exercise – especially the kind that builds your cardiovascular capacity — is great for brain health. Other activities such as yoga and qigong can help promote mindfulness as well as physical flexibility and strength.
- Practice mindful attention. While I just mentioned yoga and qigong as ways to promote mindfulness, you might also consider developing a regular meditation practice. This practice can help your brain to focus and tune out the chatter of modern life. There are a number of wonderful apps that can help. In addition, Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey regularly host a free 21-day meditation experience. I’ve found these experiences to be really helpful.
- Seek out new experiences and adventures. Always relying on your old hobbies and interests won’t help build those neural connections to your brain. Get away from continually doing what you’ve already mastered. Be open to trying new things.
- Try to find and embrace more positive experiences. Changes in your brain structure are activated based on where you place your attention. Initial changes are temporary unless something engages your brain enough to “save” it. Remember that brain plasticity is a two-way street. Positive plasticity based on new experiences causes the brain to strengthen its connections. Bad habits lead to negative plasticity.
Brain health all comes back to choosing your experiences wisely. By staying active and engaged, we all can continue to build the brain’s resilience as we age!
Primary Sources for This Post:
Hellerstein, D. (2011). Neuroplasticity and Depression. Psychology Today.
Huffington Post. (2015). You Can Grow New Brain Cells. Here’s How.
MedicineNet.com. (ND). Definition of Neuroplasticity.
PBS. (2008). The Brain Fitness Program.
SuperCamp. (ND). What Does “Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together” Mean?