Your Brain’s Future: The Good And Bad News

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Your brain can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s and that number is projected to triple by 2050 according to the Alzheimer’s Association, brain health is a top concern for many, especially baby boomers which would include me. 

An “Alzheimer’s pill” isn’t likely to make an appearance any time soon. Some people believe that a diet free of gluten or with lots of fish, blueberries, walnuts, and kale is the answer. Others are banking on regular physical exercise, a daily Sudoku puzzle, or meditation.  While all of these things are beneficial elements of a brain healthy lifestyle, what each of our brains really needs is a personal fitness plan.

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD, Professor Emeritus, co-founder of Posit Science, and author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, the answer is right in front of our noses:

Contemporary neuroscience has shown us that you come from you.  Your brain is plastic. You have the power within at any age, to be better, more capable, continuously growing a progressively more interesting life.  If you’re in decline, you have great resources that can help you sustain — indeed, even regrow —  your neurological abilities in ways that can help assure that your active brain shall last as long as your physical body.  You have powers of re-strengthening, recovery, and re-normalization, even when your brain has suffered large-scale distortions that accompany developmental or psychiatric disorders, and even when it has been physically damaged in any one in any one of the innumerable ways that can befall you in your life.

If your still alive at the age of age of 50 and you live in the United States or Europe, the average life span extends into the ninth decade of life.  Just about every person reading this book can optimistically look forward to living past their 85th birthday.  You should know, then, that at that age there is roughly a 50% chance that you will be identified as senile or demented.  Other individuals in that cohort will have memory or other impairments that prevent them from sustaining an independent lifestyle.  In the latter case, the medical term is ‘mild cognitive impairment’ (MCI).  The only thing mild about it is its name.

 The payoffs of a brain fitness regime can be enormous for an individual and for our society with the population age 65 and older expected to more than double by 2060 to 92 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Merzenich writes:

They [the benefits] go far beyond remembering the odd face or word on the tip of your tongue.  Brain fitness is about retaining your vitality, your zest for life, your independence, yourself.  It is about giving your brain an excellent opportunity to last as long as your physical body.  It’s about living longer, alive, full of it, fun, still intense, still confident, independent, still growing, more capable and more interesting next week and next year.

While you may never have to visit a brain fitness center, making brain fitness a priority does require that you reorganize your everyday life in ways that encourage brain health improvement, growth, and restoration. But, what exactly does that mean?

Suggestions outlined by Merzenich in Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life are:

  • Brain Training

Start spending time doing online brain training consistently at paid sites like BrainHQLuminosity, or free sites such as Brain PagesAARP, or Easter Seals. Certain plasticity based exercises have been scientifically shown to drive cognitive benefits lasting ten years in reasoning and speed of processing.

From the day you’re born until the day you die, your brain is constantly revising and remodeling itself depending on how you use it, a concept known as neuroplasticity. Your brain actually changes form and function based on behaviors, experiences, and thoughts.  Neuroplasticity can work for you to strengthen and improve your brain, but  it can also work against you while your brain declines and idles. (See post: Your Plastic Brain: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly)

  • Minimize Negative-Learning

Stop or drastically minimize negative behaviors contributing to your neurological decline. In addition to the well-known culprits: drugs, alcohol, an unhealthy diet, and sedentary life style, having your daily life constructed to require minimal effort, not asking you to think or pay serious attention, takes your brain offline more and more each day.  The goal is to “Live WITH your brain,” challenging it often with new experiences and learning.

Merzenich suggests approaching life with a sense of purpose acquiring or improving an ability every few months and paying attention and engaging as you go through daily life.  I would call the second quality mindfulness.

Develop the habit of careful conversational listening and later test your memory about what you heard.  Study a foreign language. Take a course at local college to learn a new skill, hobby, or art.  Learn to play a musical instrument or dance the salsa. Regularly play ball-in-motion games like tennis, ping-pong, basketball, certain WII games, etc which require you to think and move.  Play thinking card or board games. Assemble puzzles.

When a few idle moments present themselves, instead of staring at your smart phone or drifting into unstructured mind wandering, engage your mind by mentally reviewing something from the past, challenge yourself to think of different answers to a question, or come up with alternate routes to achieve a destination or goal  I would add that the time could be well used to meditate, visualize, or reframe thoughts.  The point is to re-engage and strengthen good habits of thought control.

Merzenich cautions us to use computers, smart phones, or smart pads as tools and not brain substitutes.  When used as tools, modern devices can provide learning and growth experiences which are good for our brains. However, relying on them so that we don’t have to think is to our brains’ disadvantage.

  • Seek And Spread Joy

Lastly, Merzenich advises us to seek and spread joy because as your brain gets healthier, your capacity for having fun and enjoying life increases which, in turn, makes your brain even healthier and brighter.  The better it gets, the better it gets. Although this concept is easier said than done, noticing the good, practicing gratitude and mindfulness, cultivating compassion, and meditation can help incorporate more joy into life regularly.

Merzenich writes:

The bottom line: Refocus and re-intensify your active hearing, seeing, and feeling.  Re-engage with life again, with vigor, seriousness, and challenge.  Nurture behaviors that are demanding on every level of perception and cognition — from addressing details of sensation and perception through complex levels of reasoning and planning.  Learn to learn again.  Celebrate every small step in progress, because small steps can lead to big achievements and the pleasure that accompanies them.  Avoid the effortless path. Stop hiding behind the mindless, brainless,struggle-free behaviors that you mastered in your younger life.  In other words, stop going to such great efforts not to engage in real life! Grow again, in your everyday activities, by improving old abilities and by developing new ones, by leading a life more richly supplied with interesting experiences, and by adopting a positive attitude and reclaiming your thirst and joy in life.

 image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/muggles/

10 Ways To Stay Positive In A Negative World

5075477519_03df81cc98_zEverywhere I turn there’s bad news.

A 22-year-old man in CA goes on a killing spree because he’s upset that he’s still a virgin. More than 200 girls were abducted by militants in Nigeria. The sea level is climbing and the East Coast is going to be underwater.

Then a picture shows up in my Facebook feed of a puppy buried up to its neck with a man leering at the camera fist pulled back ready to punch the poor thing.  It was shared in the hopes of identifying the man, but STILL.

Too.  Much.  Bad.

It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed and riddled with worry and dread. I’m not alone. Anxiety disorders have become the most common mental illness in the U.S. affecting 40 million people over the age of 18. An estimated 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. is depressed.

Although these conditions develop from a complex set of factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events, negative and unhealthy thought patterns are major contributors. It’s estimated that a person has anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 thoughts a day. If your mind tends toward the negative, that’s a lot of dark thoughts.

Pessimistic thinking is usually under the radar of conscious awareness and becomes a persistent habit casting a shadow over the a person’s entire world. Because our brains physically change based on our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, a capability known as neuroplasticity, negative thinking patterns actually get wired into our brains and become the default.

By learning to consciously intercept and change thought patterns, anyone can lower anxiety, ease depression, and train their brain to become more consistently positive and calm.  The quickest way to change how you feel is to change how you think.

I used to be on antidepressants for more than a decade and attempted suicide twice. By taking control of my mind and thoughts, I ditched the drugs, turned my life around, and have managed to stay calm, positive, and happy for years.  While I’m certainly not here all the time and it’s unrealistic to expect to be, it has become my baseline that I return to.

Some tips which you can easily incorporate in your life that have worked for me are:

Come into the present moment: Many times throughout the day, bring your awareness into the here and now and realize that you are alright regardless of anything else going on in the world.

Breathe:  Take several small breaks during the day and inhale long, deep breaths into your abdomen counting to six.  Repeat exhaling.  This slow breathing lowers the heart rate and calms the parasympathetic nervous system.

Notice the good:  No matter what the current circumstances, there’s always good to be found even if it’s something as small as turning the faucet and water coming out. There was good in your past, there’s good in the present, and there will be good in your future. Make it a point to notice it.

Say affirmations: Counter negative thoughts by repeating positive statements to yourself, such as “I’m smart, competent, and capable.” The affirmative thoughts need to be present tense, positive, personal, and believable to work.

Visualize – See mental images of how you would like to be, situations you want to create, or how you would like events to play out and really let yourself feel the accompanying positive emotions.  Your body is constantly reacting to your thoughts whether it’s to your benefit or not. Use it for your good.

Meditate:  Practice mediation daily to strengthen your mental health and feeling of connectedness.  Meditation becomes a place to process emotions and for self inquiry. If you already have a meditation practice, great.  If not, start one.  You can find good pointers here.

Practice mindfulness: Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as: “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Get Outside: Many studies have linked being in nature with reduced depression and anxiety even faster healing times and greater work productivity.  Go take a walk!

Limit Media and Electronics:  There is no way to avoid all media, and you don’t want to, but there’s no need to focus on negative hype. Find sources that inspire and motivate you. Take a break from electronics.

Hang out with positive people: You “catch” emotions and attitudes, both negative and positive, from others, just like germs.  When possible, surround yourself with encouraging, optimistic, and creative people.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/

I’m No Angel (And That’s OK)

8739307295_caa69029a5_bWhile driving around the other day, I was playing some old cds I haven’t listened to in ages.  One of them was the British singer-songwriter Dido’s No Angel which was popular around 15 years ago.  (Dido, No Angel, Arista Records, 1999. CD.)

I remember playing the cd non-stop during a time in my life in which I was miserable, hopeless, and kind of clueless.  Despite being comfortably married for 16 years, living in an impressive home in Florida looking like it came right off of the pages of House Beautiful with a pool in the back yard, a Porsche in the garage, and two precious, young sons, I found myself depressed and lost in my own life.

Notice I didn’t say happily married.  I said comfortably.  More like comfortably numb.

By that point, we were having major problems in the relationship and going to couples counseling.  I was also seeing a therapist individually and just beginning to get real with myself. The illusory shell that I’d spent thirty some years perfecting so much so that I didn’t even know who the real me was, was breaking open with the flawed me oozing out of the cracks.

I was tired — damn tired — of rejecting, shaming, and trying to hide the parts of myself that my husband, and therefore I, considered “bad” and feeling guilty for being less-than-perfect. Dido’s song from that cd, I’m No Angel, became my anthem because I was finally ready to admit something I’d always known deep down: I wasn’t who my husband wanted me to be and who I’d tried so hard to become in attempt to keep the peace.  I was a completely different person with my own opinions, dreams, and needs that mattered, that longed to see the light of day, that needed to be heard.

I can remember singing along with gusto, pouring my heart and soul into the words as if she’d written them just for me.

’cause I’m no angel, but please don’t think that I won’t try and try
I’m no angel, but does that mean that I can’t live my life?
I’m no angel, but please don’t think that I can’t cry
I’m no angel, but does that mean that I won’t fly?

When I timidly began to peel back my shell to reveal glimpses of my true self in our couples counseling sessions, it became very clear very quickly that the real me was not going to be OK with my husband. It’s not that he or she was a horrible person.  It’s just that she wasn’t who he thought he’d married.

Despite his rejection and disapproval, something inside of me knew that I was still a valuable person deserving of love, compassion, and happiness.

When Dido’s song, “Hunter,” came on the other day, I broke out in a victorious ear-to-ear grin and felt a surge of joyous energy as I remembered singing its words years ago feeling the longing, the ache, the pain of wanting to be free, wanting to live an authentic life, wanting to be me, and wanting that to be enough.

If you were a king up there on your throne
Would you be wise enough to let me go?
For this queen you think you own

Wants to be a hunter again
Wants to see the world alone again
To take a chance on life again
So let me go

I felt triumphantly giddy to be where I am in my life now, ten years on the other side of leaving the marriage and taking a chance at life again.  Although the years since then have been anything but a picnic and life now is not without its challenges by any means, it feels great to be a hunter again.  I’m still no angel, and you know what?  That’s OK!  :)

image:  Michael Schaffner, Angel Of Grief,  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwschaff/

 

Garbage In, Garbage Out

 

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“Garbage in, garbage out,” a term originally coined in the technology industry, applies to your brain and body as well.  Both can can only function as good as what goes in them.

Despite making up only two percent of the body’s weight, your brain is an energy hog gobbling up more than twenty percent of daily energy intake. Because of this, the foods you consume (and don’t consume) greatly affect your brain’s functioning, including everything from learning to memory to emotions.

Your gut has a “second brain,” called the enteric nervous system, made up of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the intestines, which play a key role in your physical and mental health.  Studies suggest the quality of the foods you consume over your lifetime affects the structure and function of your brain.

Your brain needs the right nutrients to function optimally.  A brain healthy diet based on plant-fed animal protein, good fats, and lots of organic, leafy greens, and a rainbow of other veggies and fruits is a good start to giving your brain the nourishment it needs.

However for many reasons, it can be difficult to get the needed vitamins and minerals from our daily diets. Although I eat very healthy, I just don’t consume enough food in a day to give my brain and body all the good stuff they need.  Children who turn up their noses at vegetables and older adults with diminished appetites also have a hard time fulfilling nutritional requirements. As if it wasn’t challenging enough already, the nutrient value of produce has declined over the years as crops have been engineered for higher yields.

For these reasons and to aid in my healing from a brain injury, I began taking dietary supplements years ago.  I know that they helped my brain recover faster and further, and I can still tell a difference when I skip them.

Recently, I discovered a shake-on nutritional supplement made from organic vegetables, ENOF, which I love and want to tell you about.  ENOF makes it easy to add vitamin power to my and my teenage sons’ diets. (Shhh! Don’t tell them!) And what’s even better is that the company was co-founded by my yoga buddy and donates a percentage of their profits to charitable organizations providing nutrition to populations in need.

Unlike synthetic vitamins, ENOF comes from real food: spinach, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, beets and shiitake mushrooms, making it easily processed and absorbed by the digestive system (your gut brain, remember?)  It’s also important to note that ENOF doesn’t have any yucky stuff or known neurotoxins found in many vitamins like GMO’s, high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, gluten, or aspartame.

Virtually undetectable, ENOF can be sprinkled on prepared food, in drink, or in whatever’s cooking imparting almost no flavor.  In addition to supplying 60% of the daily vitamins your body needs, one serving, just three shakes, of ENOF supports your brain health as follows:

  • Vitamin A is essential to a developing nervous system and for brain function throughout life.  Research has established a link between vitamin A and learning ability.
  • Vitamin C is an antioxidant aiding in the removal of toxins and wastes from brain cells which may help prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and is essential to neurotransmitter production.  Supplementation with vitamin C has been shown to improve IQ, memory, and other mental functions.
  • Vitamin D affects your ability to think, concentrate, and problem-solve, is essential for normal brain development, and may help prevent disorders of the brain.  Lower vitamin D blood levels are linked to a higher risk of cognitive impairment.
  • Vitamin E is another essential antioxidant which protects cell membranes from oxidative damage and neurodegeneration.
  • Vitamin K, which has been known for its role in blood clotting, is showing evidence of being important to the nervous system.  Vitamin K is an essential ingredient in making brain cell membranes and its role in sphingolipid metabolism gets really complicated.  (Read more here.)  Let’s just say it’s good for your brain, and low levels have been associated with diminished cognition.
  • Vitamin B6 is vital for brain function and has anti-inflammatory effects.  B6 is required to make the myelin sheath insulating nerves and numerous neurotransmitters regulating mood and behavior.  While the link is not entirely understood yet, low levels of B6 are connected to depression, poor cognition and memory, and associated with higher risks of senility and Alzheimer’s.
  • Thiamin, vitamin B1, plays a key role in the maintenance of the brain health and aids some neurotransmitters and brain enzymes in functioning properly.  A thiamin deficiency can lead to decreased brain function and neuron loss.
  • Folic acid, vitamin B9, is crucial for proper brain function, plays an important role in mental and emotional health, and is often found to be deficient in older populations. Supplementation of folic acid has been shown to increase processing speed and memory.

The bottom line is that you literally are what you eat, and your brain functions best when you feed it what it needs.   ENOF makes it easy. Click here for more information about ENOF.  Use the code “Bestbrain20″ for a 20% discount.

When Being Positive Is A Negative

6905633389_33782972bf_zWhen thinking positive means plastering on a forced smile and latching onto one specific result that we’ve decided is more favorable than another one, that you think will bring happiness, we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment and unhappiness. Thinking positive in this way is really forming expectations and attachments to outcomes and almost always is a negative.

It’s like wishing that leprechauns will magically intervene to make sure everything turns out as we want while unicorns frolic in the flower-filled meadow under a rainbow.  ’Aint gonna happen. Then, when things don’t go as we hoped, how can we help but be mad and sad?

This kind of positive thinking puts pressure on a person to control or manipulate events to try to make them go a certain way, which is frustratingly impossible and a sure prescription for anxiety and worry. (See blog: Life Gets Easier By Managing Expectations and The Dark Side Of Hope)

I’ve found a better way. When any situation presents itself, I consider the possible probable outcomes, both desirable and those which may seem less-than-perfect, and stay open to and attempt to find the positive in each of them.  There is always some good if you look for it. (See blog:  Look For The Good And You’ll Find It) In my own life, I’ve witnessed time and time again where something, which initially looked like an “oh crap!”, turned out to be awesome and even better than what I’d hoped for.

I don’t pretend to begin to know what is “best” anymore.  ”Best” is what I make of what happens. It’s up to me.  I can make any situation good or bad with my thinking about it and my response to it. My experience and the ultimate impact of any happening in my life is determined by my thoughts about and response to the situation. (See blog: Responding Rather Than Reacting)

When I open up my thinking, consider the possible benefits of any circumstance, and ask myself “How do I make this work for me?” (See blog: One Little Question), the positive possibilities become endless. Next, I can move forward taking mindful steps, being receptive to unforeseen paths and choices that may present themselves as events unfold, and having faith in myself and the universe.

Then, I think positive and take positive actions.

No matter what’s present, I’m positive about my ability to handle and work with whatever comes my way and make something good of it.  I’m positive that whatever happens is in my highest good and that I can learn from it. Then and only then is being positive, to have confidence and trust in yourself and whatever higher power you believe in, always a positive.

I saw an image saying “Positive thoughts are not enough.  You have to have positive feelings and actions.”  Now, that one didn’t make me cringe!

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheridan120/