Okay, so it may have taken a moment to realize that I was placing the yogurt container into the dish cabinet instead of taking it back to the fridge. And I can’t remember a name to save my life. I can, however, help my daughter translate a Latin sentence, watch the Cubs and the Suns simultaneously while also reading my email, and tackle a whole new career. It is incredible to think back over our lives at how much we have learned and experienced. Our brains have taken in so much and still have room for more.
There are parts of our brain that decline, like memory, and injury or illness effects can build up, like with Alzheimer’s. When I talk with people who are in midlife, one of their biggest concerns is not death but disability and dementia. It is scary to think that we may not be completely in control of our minds some day. Fortunately, research is showing that there are steps we can take to build up our brain tissue and keep it functioning well.
As life span increases, we can increase the amount of healthy active years in midlife rather than resigning ourselves to a long decline. Every book I read about neuroscience tends to mention the long-term study that was done with a group of nuns. They stayed mentally and physically active into their later years. Their brains were examined after they died and showed severe signs of Alzheimer’s disease. However, in life, they didn’t show the amount of cognitive decline that would have been expected with these physical brain changes. Being active kept their brains adapting and functioning well.
By making our brains work, we keep building and repairing connections along and between the neurons. Also as we get older, the connections between the different sides and different parts of the brain increase. So even if our brain processing speed decreases, we have much more brain to draw on. We connect the dots better and have much more knowledge we can use.
In order to keep our brain working well, we need to feed it and exercise it. We feed it by doing physical activity regularly and vigorously enough to increase blood flow to our brain. Dr. Art Kramer, a neuroscientist, showed that aerobic exercise for an hour three times per week increased brain volume and improved focus. Staying fit also helps to reduce physical problems that can adversely affect our brain or prevent us from having the energy to keep mentally active. The more we keep up with our physical fitness as we approach and enter midlife, the more we will continue that into our older years. It needs to be an intentional choice right now so that we will continue to have choices in the future.
Come back next week to hear about what mental exercise we can do to keep our brains humming along.