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The Two Most Important Things We Can All Do To Protect Our Brain Health

by Dr. Roger Landry       November 8, 2015  

When I was in medical school in the 1960s, the prevailing belief was that once we reached physical maturity, our brains ceased to make new brain tissue. Therefore, all of the conditions associated with aging gradually depleted the neurons in our brains, causing them to atrophy until we eventually succumbed to dementia … Depressing, right?

Fortunately, we were wrong. We’ve since learned that our brains are not the static organs we once thought they were. They are actually dynamic and have the incredible potential for growing, rewiring, and healing.

Neurogenesis, or the ability to make new neurons, and neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to reorganize and build new neural pathways, continue well into old age, which means that we are, in fact, “architects” of our own brains.

With that in mind, and in honor of November’s National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, I’d like to share the two most important things we can all do to prevent brain decay:

1. Keep learning new skills (they’re a virtual fountain of youth).

Think of the brain as 100,000 miles of interconnected roads, or neural pathways. Every time we learn something new, recall a fact, or recognize someone, messages travel like cars along these pathways at nearly 300 miles per hour to get us to our destination (i.e., enable us to perform a task).

For example, say you want to learn something new, like the list of presidents or how to play a song on the guitar. Think of that skill as a destination, like Boston. Once you’ve learned that skill, you’ve built a neural pathway to the city. Keep doing it, and you’ve soon created a better, faster freeway to get there.

But stop using that road, and eventually potholes develop and you won’t be able to get there as fast or at all.

Atrophy of the brain used to be viewed as a side effect of aging. Now, we know this may simply be a lack of use.


In other words: Use it or lose it! When we use the skills and knowledge we have, the many connections in the brain remain in the best shape they can be. Don’t use them, and they become more difficult to use through a process known as synaptic pruning, in which the brain atrophies in areas where these functions are rarely used.

So what do I recommend? Continue doing those Sudoku puzzles, playing the guitar, speaking a second language, and cooking new recipes. Neuroplasticity and effective neurogenesis can only occur when the brain is stimulated by environment or behavior.

And the added benefit of learning something new? When we are fully focused on a task, we become mindful and less stressed. Which leads me to my second point:

2. Use mindfulness to manage stress and protect your brain.

Stress, quite literally, rots us from within. The chronic stress that is accepted as part of our modern world is destructive to our cognitive function and raises our risk of dementia.

Within the hippocampus, the memory area of our brains, new cells appear. However, not all survive because stress and depression decrease neurogenesis. The hippocampus, in fact, is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease, bringing into question just how large a role depression and stress are in the development of the disease.

Sadly, we as humans are the only mammals (as far as we know) capable of self-inducing the stress-producing “fight-or-flight” mechanism with our thoughts.

In other words, we can get ourselves worked up over a missed deadline and trigger the same bodily responses as though we were suddenly trapped in a cage with an angry lion. And we can maintain that level of stress for days … weeks … months … even years after the threat is gone.

How can we combat this? Rather than let your thoughts become the driver of your emotions, observe your mind as it begins to get wound up with worry and negativity.

Simply practicing mindfulness and observing your thoughts puts you back in control so that your emotions don’t trigger the stress response. Don’t judge your mind; just notice. Wow, look how my mind is getting itself all out of joint over this thing. This reminds you that you are not your mind — and that you can control what you think. This will result in lowering your stress.

The bottom line: By keeping your mind engaged and managing the self-induced stress response, you can help your brain continue to function at high levels for a lifetime.


The Memory Challenge: 8 Ways to Construct Cognitive Reserve

Cognitive reserve, the term used to describe the mechanism by which a person’s mind can compensate for damage to their brain, has become a buzzword among seniors and their caregivers, thanks to its connection to one of the most infamous issues of modern aging: dementia.

Research indicates that people who have solid stores of cognitive reserve are generally less likely to exhibit the classic signs of dementia—short-term memory loss, difficulty multitasking, etc.—even if their brain scans indicate mental damage. This is because cognitive reserve effectively makes the mind stronger and more nimble, enabling it to come up with ways to compensate for disease-related loss of functioning.

Seek out and embrace new challenges; your brain will thank you

Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., founder of Cognifit, and co-author (with Collins Hemingway) of “Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom,” feels that finding ways to consistently engage the brain with new and stimulating experiences is the key to cultivating more cognitive reserve and staving off mental decline.

No matter what age they are, Breznitz stresses that starting a cognitive fitness regimen may help a person ward off the symptoms of dementia. “Our cognitive skills are not fixed. At all ages the brain has the ability to respond to new information and new stimuli,” he says.

And caregivers shouldn’t hesitate to encourage their loved ones to take part in mentally stimulating activities as well. Of course, you may have to scale them to fit the elder’s current cognitive capacity. Some of the suggestions listed in this article may not be appropriate for elderly parents, but would benefit caregiver’s own cognitive function.

While commenting on a previous article on cognitive reserve, Jeannegibbs, one of AgingCare.com’s most active members, discusses exposing her loved one to new experiences: “Whether or not it really helps mitigate the dementia, it has made our life richer. It’s also a no risk strategy as far as I’m concerned—until the person with dementia truly can’t take stimulation anymore.”

More confusion now may mean less confusion later

According to Breznitz, the twin traits of novelty and variety are invaluable when coming up with activities to enhance cognitive reserve. Sudoku and crosswords alone won’t work, he says. You’ve got to get creative when coming up with ways to stimulate the brain.

In the same way elite athletes and their trainers use the concept of muscle confusion (varying the types and duration of exercises to expose weaknesses and challenge muscles in new ways) to maximize their physical fitness, switching up the things you do to engage your mental muscle can help maximize your mental fitness.

“Challenging the brain helps maintain cognitive vigor and capacity. And maintaining our cognitive health maintains our quality of life,” Breznitz says.

He offers a few suggestions of things practically anyone can do to beef up their brainpower:

Challenge yourself

  1. Work on your weaknesses: “Since novelty and variety are the keys to battling routines and enhancing cognitive ability, engaging out minds outside of our established domains would be more beneficial,” says Breznitz. For example, if you’re really good with numbers, but not such a big literary buff, try picking up a classic such as Moby Dick and see if you can read the whole thing. You may find that you’re actually a closet book-lover.
  2. Take the road less traveled: Take a different route when going to the grocery store or driving your elderly loved one to the doctor’s office. Because we travel them with such frequency, driving routes are one of the biggest routines we have—and one of the easiest to practice breaking. Just make sure you leave a little earlier than normal to give yourself some time in case you get lost or your new route takes longer than you anticipate.
  3. Dominate your non-dominant hand: Pretty much everyone has a dominant hand that they use to eat, write, and perform other daily activities. Mix things up by recruiting your neglected hand to some activities. Your non-dominant appendage might not be up to the task of transcribing a beautiful handwritten letter, so you may want to start off small by holding your fork in the other hand during mealtimes. Take it slow and try to avoid getting frustrated. Remember, challenging exercises like this may make you feel foolish, but you’re actually helping to preserve your mental capacity.
  4. Change your point of view: You don’t have to limit yourself to academic or physical challenges. Emotional experiments may serve the dual purpose of helping your personal life as well as your mental health. For example, say you’re in a fight with your sister over who should take care of your mother’s finances. Since you’re mom’s primary caregiver, you feel that you should be in charge of the money. But your sister, who has experience as an actuary, feels that her knowledge can help make your mother’s nest egg last longer. Try to really listen to what your sister has to say, and attempt to approach the issue from her point of view. Forcing yourself to get out of your own head and examine the problem from a different perspective will tax your brain and, as an added benefit, you may find that empathizing with your sister’s position helps the two of you come to an agreeable compromise.

Be a curious cat

  1. Go back to school: Taking a class on something that is interesting to you is a great way to flex your mental muscles, according to Breznitz. And, thanks to the Internet, a time-crunched, cash-strapped caregiver can enjoy free lectures without leaving their house. There are a number of different websites that offer video lectures on everything from organic chemistry to classical mythology, taught by professors from such celebrated institutions as Stanford and Harvard University. Apple also has a program called, iTunesU, that can be downloaded to any computer and has a collection of college courses that you can bookmark and stream for no charge.
  2. Take a trip: Traveling to someplace you’ve never been is a fantastic way to fire up dormant neurons. If caring for your loved one means that you don’t have the opportunity to be a part of the jet-set, don’t worry, you can still get away. Breznitz says that simple activities like walking a new path along the beach, or in a local park can be enough to stimulate your mind.
  3. Explore your strengths: Attending to your mental and physical weaknesses is likely to produce a greater cognitive challenge. But, Breznitz feels that it’s important not to neglect your strengths. “Investment in one’s strengths is needed for both self-image (sense of success) and for a more in-depth understanding of problems,” he says. Expanding upon an existing talent can be a great way to boost your self-esteem while challenging your brain. If you’ve always been an avid reader and want to branch out into writing, set aside time each day to practice. You can buy books of daily writing prompts at your local books store, or go online and get a few for free. Who knows, you may find your inner romance novelist.
  4. Get a hobby: Have you always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, learn a new language, etc., but you just never got around to doing it? Why not start now?

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20 Everyday Activities That Keep Memory and Thinking Sharp

These 20 activities have been linked to reduced risk of developing memory and thinking problems.

Computer use, as well as socialising and doing arts and crafts in middle age may help preserve memory in later years, a new study suggests.

The research, published in the journal Neurology, asked 256 seniors to report how often they took part in various everyday activities (Peterson et al., 2015).

None of the people, whose average age was 87, had memory and thinking problems at the start of the study.

The artistic activities included:

  • drawing,
  • sculpting,
  • and painting.

Crafts included:

  • pottery,
  • quilling,
  • woodworking,
  • ceramics,
  • quilting,
  • and sewing.



Socialising included:

  • socialising with friends,
  • trips to the movies, theatre or concerts,
  • book clubs,
  • Bible study
  • and travel.

Using the computer included:

  • conducting web searches,
  • online purchases,
  • using the internet,
  • and computer games.

Around four years later just under half had developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

MCI may include problems with memory, planning, language and attention which are relatively subtle in comparison to dementia.

However, those who had participated regularly in arts, crafts, socialising or computer use were less likely to develop MCI.

The activities which appeared to have the strongest protective effect were artistic.

People who engaged in artistic activities in middle and old age were 73% less likely to develop memory and thinking problems.

For crafts the reduction in the chance was 45%, for socialising it was 55% and for computer use it was 53%.

Professor Rosebud Roberts, one of the study’s authors and an expert on the causes of dementia, said:

“As millions of older US adults are reaching the age where they may experience these memory and thinking problem called Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), it is important we look to find lifestyle changes that may stave off the condition.

Our study supports the idea that engaging the mind may protect neurons, or the building blocks of the brain, from dying, stimulate growth of new neurons, or may help recruit new neurons to maintain cognitive activities in old age.”

source: PsyBlog


3 Inner Virtues That Come With Age Which May Surprise You

On top of wisdom, there are three inner virtues which unexpectedly come with age.

People become more trusting as they get older, a new study finds.

This is just the reverse of the stereotype of cynical, suspicious, grumpy seniors played on by many a sitcom.

And trust is not the only inner virtue that comes with age.

Dr Claudia Haase, one of the study’s authors, said that greater trust may lead to more happiness with age:

“When we think of old age, we often think of decline and loss.
But a growing body of research shows that some things actually get better as we age.
Our new findings show that trust increases as people get older and, moreover, that people who trust more are also more likely to experience increases in happiness over time.”

On top of greater trust and happiness, people often experience more optimism with age.

Dr Haase said:

“We know that older people are more likely to look at the bright side of things.
As we age, we may be more likely to see the best in other people and forgive the little let-downs that got us so wary when we were younger.”

The conclusions come from two groups of people, one huge sample of almost 200,000 people from 83 countries.


This found a connection between aging and trust.

A second group of 1,230 people from the US were followed over time.

Dr Haase explained the results:

“For Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers alike, levels of trust increase as people get older.
People really seem to be ‘growing to trust’ as they travel through their adult years.”

There was no evidence of disadvantages to older people’s more trusting nature.

Dr Michael Poulin, who co-authored the study, said:

“Both studies found a positive association between trust and well-being that was consistent across the life span, suggesting that trust is not a liability in old age.
Our findings suggest that trust may be an important resource for successful development across the life span.”

The study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science (Poulin and Haase, 2015)

source: Psyblog

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Can a Positive Attitude Reverse the Effects of Aging?

AgingCare.com     November 6, 2014

The world is full of stereotypes. Some are born from over-generalized kernels of truth, while others are more like misguided myths gone wild. And, at some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced the effects of stereotyping.

One of the most pervasive stereotypes in modern North America is that of the frail older adult. Once a person ages beyond the apex of the proverbial hill, it’s almost as if society collectively gives them a shove, sending them tumbling down the other side, towards death. Advocates for the elderly have been fighting against this perception for decades.

Overturning this stereotype is about more than just changing minds, it could also be an effective way to lessen the damaging economic and health care effects of North America’s rapidly aging population. New research from the Yale School of Public Health has found that encountering positive messages about aging can enhance the mental and physical well-being of older individuals, potentially enabling them to maintain their independence for longer.

Changing minds could change lives

Reversing ingrained stereotypes about aging—even a little bit—can be a tricky endeavor, as lead researcher Becca Levy, associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Science Division at Yale, and her team found out. “The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies,” Levy says in a Yale press release.

Previous studies led by Levy have shown how negative age stereotypes can have a damaging effect on older adults’ physical health. This time, she wanted to see whether the process worked in reverse.

Optimism, Laughter May Bring Long Life

To help older adults overcome negative thought patterns about their age, scientists divided 100 individuals whose average age was 81 years old up into several different groups. One group was instructed to write about aging adults who were able to maintain lively, active lifestyles. Another group was placed in front of a computer screen that periodically flashed positive words such as “creative” and “spry” at speeds that were slow enough for participants’ eyes to recognize them, but too fast for their brains to fully process—a form of subliminal messaging.

The hope was that, by altering participants’ perceptions about aging in a subtle (yet positive) way by exposing them to subliminal messaging on the computer screens, the older adults would feel better about themselves and be able to more effectively perform everyday activities.

The researchers were not disappointed. By the end of a three week period, people in the subliminal messaging group had better balance and walking abilities, and could sit down and stand up from a chair more easily, while the older adults who wrote essays or did nothing did not experience any enhanced mobility.

Help for an aging North America

Of course, unraveling negative stereotypes about aging won’t work miracles for the millions of older people struggling with serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and dementia.

But the Yale study does demonstrate the power that taking a positive approach to the aging process can have on healthy older adults. A senior who is steadier on their feet is less likely to fall—the number one cause of injurious death in the elderly. A person who can get in and out of a chair on their own is more likely to be able to age-in-place in their own home.

The best part about these findings is that all of us can help foster an environment of esteem and kindness towards the elders in our community. Treating aging adults with respect and valuing their contributions to society is something that can provide countless benefits to members of all generations


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Zest for Life Can Be a Moving Experience

Happier seniors preserved their mobility in greater numbers than their glum peers, study found

WebMD News from HealthDay     By Randy Dotinga    HealthDay Reporter
MONDAY, Jan. 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) – Happier seniors can look forward to greater mobility as they age than their gloomier peers, new research suggests.
The findings don’t prove that happiness preserves mobility. However, “the research suggests that enjoyment of life contributes to healthier and more active old age,” said study author Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London. And it’s not just because healthier people are happier and more energetic, he said.
The researchers, who study happiness and how it relates to life, wanted to understand the physical effects of happiness.
“We have previously shown that positive well-being and enjoyment of life are predictors of longer life,” Steptoe said. “Older people who report greater enjoyment are less likely to die over the next five to eight years than those with lower enjoyment of life.”
For this study, published Jan. 20 in CMAJ, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers tracked almost 3,200 men and women aged 60 and over in England. The participants took surveys designed to test their levels of well-being. For instance, they were asked if they enjoy the things they do, being in the company of other people and if they feel full of energy. They also responded to questions about their ability to handle day-to-day physical activities such as getting dressed and showering. Some took a test that measured how fast they walked.
Over the eight years of the study, only 4 percent of people who enjoyed life the most — those in the top third of the total sample – developed problems physically handling day-to-day activities, Steptoe said. But that number shot up to 17 percent among those who showed the least enjoyment — the people in the bottom third.
Greater life satisfaction at the study’s start was also associated with slower decline in walking speed, the researchers added.
“These associations could be due to many things: the people with greater enjoyment of life could be more affluent, have less physical illness or disability to start with, or have healthier lifestyles at the outset, and these factors could predict the changes in physical function over time,” Steptoe said. “But what we found is that baseline health, economic circumstances and lifestyle explain only about half the association between enjoyment of life and deterioration in function. So there is more to it than that.”
Steptoe said that less stress (and, potentially, more happiness) could contribute to better health by protecting the body from the harmful effects of stress hormones.
The research “suggests that among other things, we should think about the positive aspects of life and experience of older people,” Steptoe said. “Not only are these important issues in themselves, they might have benefits in terms of physical function. These could in turn help us contain the spiraling costs of social and health care among older sectors of society.”
James Maddux, a professor emeritus of psychology with the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said the findings are convincing and reflect other research.
“Healthy people are usually happier, and happy people are usually healthier,” he said.
However, he said, it’s important to be cautious about the conclusions. “All we can conclude is some kind of relation between physical health and happiness and life satisfaction,” Maddux noted. “The findings do not tell us whether a great sense of well-being results in improved health or whether improved health results in a greater sense of well-being.”
source: www.webmd.com

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A Sense of Purpose Helps You Live Longer

“Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”

Feeling useful and having a sense of purpose in life are clearly beneficial psychologically, but now research is revealing that there also physical benefits.

No matter what your age, new research finds, having a sense of purpose helps you live longer.

However, the earlier you find a sense of direction and purpose, the better.

The findings come from a study of more than 6,000 people who were followed over 14 years (Hill & Turiano, 2014).

The results showed that people who strongly agreed with statements like the following were less likely to die over the course of the study:

    “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”

The researchers were surprised that these findings held, even for younger people.

Lead researcher, Patrick Hill, said:

    “There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones.

For instance, adults might need a sense of direction more, after they have left the workplace and lost that source for organizing their daily events.

In addition, older adults are more likely to face mortality risks than younger adults.

These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity.”

These findings are not isolated.

Recent studies have pointed to both the physical and psychological benefits of finding meaning in life, especially with advancing years:

    A 2009 study of 1,238 elderly people found that those with a sense of purpose lived longer.

A 2010 study of 900 older adults found that those with a greater sense of purpose were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Survey data often links a sense of purpose in life with increased happiness.

No matter what your age, then, it’s worth thinking about what gives your life meaning.

It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have the whole thing planned out, but a sense of direction is clearly beneficial both psychologically and physically.

source: psyblog