Take Care Of Your Brain, And It Will Take Care Of You

shutterstock_44186410 (1)Your brain is involved in everything you do – every thought, word, action, behavior, and feeling – literally everything.  Most of us know less about the command center in our heads, with its amazing abilities surpassing the most sophisticated computer, than we do our smartphones.

Because your brain effects all aspects of your life from health and happiness to relationships and your ability to function in the world, it makes sense to learn about and take care of it. With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and that number projected to triple by 2050, brain health is of major concern to most everyone.  (See Your Brain’s Future: The Good And Bad News)

There’s a lot of misinformation out there and persistent brain myths that just won’t go away.  (See Busting Brain Myths) Your brain doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. So, you have to educate yourself about what is arguably the most important organ in your body.

Take care of your brain, and it will take care of you.

The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age,  by Alvaro Fernandez, Elkhonon Goldberg PhD, and Pascale Michelon PhD, separates “hype from hope in the brain health arena” by providing the latest science-based information to tell you how to optimize your brain health and function across your lifespan. Below are some brain fitness facts the authors share:

  Brain Facts

  • There is not only one “It ” in “Use it or lose it.”  The brain is composed of a number of specialized units.  Our life and productivity depend on a variety of brain functions, not just one.
  • Genes do not determine the fate of our brains.  Lifelong neuroplasticity allows our lifestyles and actions to play a meaningful role in how our brains physically evolve, especially given longer life expectancy.
  • Aging does not mean automatic decline.  There is nothing inherently fixed in the precise trajectory of how our brain functions evolve as we age.
  • We will not have a Magic Pill or General Solution to solve all our cognitive challenges anytime soon.  A multi-pronged approach is recommended, centered around nutrition, stress management, and both physical and mental exercise.

 Physical Exercise Facts

  • Physical exercise improves learning and other brain functions through increased brain volume, blood supply and growth hormone levels in the body.
  • Of all the types of physical exercise, cardiovascular exercise that gets the heart beating – from walking to skiing, tennis and basketball –  has been shown to have the greatest effect.
  • Aerobic exercise for at least thirty to sixty minutes per day, three days a week, seems to be the best regimen.

(For more information on physical exercise and brain health, see The Fountain Of Youth For Brain And Body)

 Brain and Nutrition Facts

  • The brain needs a lot of energy:  It extracts approximately 50% of the oxygen and 10% of the glucose from arterial blood.
  • Intake of Omega-3 fatty acids is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline.
  • Intake of vegetables (and thus antioxidants) is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
  • Tobacco use increases risks of cognitive decline and dementia.
  • Moderate doses of caffeine can increase alertness but there is no clear sustained lifetime benefit.
  • Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption lowers the risk of dementia.

(For more information on nutrition and brain health, see Brain Food, Brain Food For Better Memory, and Feed Your Brain)

Mental Challenge Facts

  • Mental Stimulation strengthens the connections  between neurons (synapses), thus improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning.
  • Mental stimulation also helps build cognitive reserve, helping the brain be better protected against potential pathology.
  • Reading, writing, playing board or card games, doing crossword and other puzzles, and participating in organized group discussions can be cognitively challenging activities.
  • The only leisure activity that has been associated with reduced cognitive function is watching television.

(For more information on challenging your brain, see Mental Gymnastics)

 Brain and Social\Engagement Facts

  • Higher social engagement is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risks of cognitive decline.
  • Volunteering helps lower mortality and depression rates, and slows down the decline in physical health and cognitive function.
  • Larger social network sizes are associated with better cognitive function.

(For more information on the brain benefits of socializing, see Beauty Begins In The Brian Part I)

 Brain and Stress Facts

  • Chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells).
  • Memory and general mental flexibility are impaired by chronic stress.

(For more information on the effects of stress on your brain, see Beauty Begins In The Brian Part III)

 Brain Training Facts

  • Medication is not the only hope or even main hope for cognitive enhancement.  Non-invasive interventions can have comparable and more durable effects, side-effect free.
  • Not all brain activities or exercises are equal.  Varied and targeted exercises are the necessary ingredients in brain training so that a wide range of brain functions can be stimulated.
  • “Brain age” is a fiction: No two individuals have the same brain or cognitive functioning.  Consequently brain training cannot be said to roll back “brain age” by 10, 20, or 30 years.
  • Brain training is more effortful, and its effects are more specific, compared to a challenging leisure activity.

(For more information on brain training, see You’re Not Stuck With The Brain You Were Born With)

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On October 28- 30, the Sharp­Brains will host The 2014 SharpBrains Vir­tual Sum­mit fea­turing over 40 of the world’s top sci­en­tists, inno­va­tors and prac­ti­tion­ers work­ing on evidence-based and scal­able ways to define, mea­sure and pro­mote brain fit­ness. The Sum­mit, now in its fifth year, pro­vides a vibrant and con­ve­nient forum to dis­cuss the lat­est in con­sumer and patient needs, cog­ni­tive and brain sci­ence, dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, videogames, men­tal health, human cap­i­tal, life­long learn­ing, and senior services.  (Use code sharpbrain2014 for 10% off)

The Best Brain Advice From The Brain Experts

shutterstock_85544854I recently asked a group of some the most knowledgeable leaders in brain fitness movement- I mean these guys are at the forefront of educating us on brain health and using our brains to achieve  health and happiness – what their #1 advice would be to someone about taking care of their brain.

You might expect their answers would include serious diet modifications, major lifestyle changes, or some rigorous mental exercise program, eh?  But no.  I think their responses will surprise you because every single piece of advice is something you can easily do today, on your own, without making drastic changes, or spending money.


Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD is the brain behind BrainHQ and the author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.  For nearly five decades, he has been a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research. As co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, Dr. Merzenich heads the company’s science team.

First, you have to BELIEVE you can change for the better, and you have to believe that your brain is plastic. Second, you have to live your life with your brain turned ON. Engage with the world, challenge yourself, choose activities that benefit the brain like those that engage multiple modalities at a time. You can be better, stronger, and more effective, regardless of your current neurological status.  Dr. Michael Merzenich

Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author.  His books include Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time.

Our brains are naturally wired to focus on bad news and are very good at building structure from negative experiences.  While our brains can change for the better from beneficial experiences, it generally increases this encoding process to deliberately sustain, intensify, and highlight the emotional and sensate aspects of these experiences.  By training the brain to look for good facts, turn these into good experiences, and then – most important – really internalize these experiences, a person will steepen their growth curve in life, and develop more happiness, love, confidence, and peace.  Dr. Rick Hanson

Barbara Arrowsmith Young is Founder and Director of the Arrowsmith Program, a cognitive program utilizing neuroplasticity for students with learning disabilities. The program is based on Arrowsmith Young’s personal experience of living with learning disabilities which she details in her book The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation.

The importance of reducing stress on brain health needs to be understood – if people can do one thing a day to reduce stress – from meditation, giving gratitude, walking in nature, getting a good night’s sleep – research has demonstrated that this has significant positive benefits on brain health and function.

Also I would encourage people to work on improving their cognitive abilities through practice – it is possible – and current research is pointing to the importance of keeping our brains stimulated and active over our lifespan in order to reduce the cognitive decline that impacts us as we age. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as a result of cognitive stimulation occurs across our lifespan – so continued exercise of the brain can keep our cognitive functions healthy.  Barbara Arrowsmith Young.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist who experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996.  Dr. Taylor studied her own stroke as it happened and chronicles the experience and her recovery in My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.

Sleep is everything.  Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

Dr. Marie Pasinski, M.D., Harvard neurologist, brain health expert and author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You: Look Radiant from the Inside Out by Empowering Your Mind writes a regular column in the health section of The Huffington Post.

Prolonged sitting takes a profound toll on your brain – simply getting up every half hour for 2 min improves brain blood flow and metabolism, promoting new connections and new neurons. Set a timer or a fitness band ‘idle alert’ to keep you on your toes! Dr. Marie Pasinski, M.D.

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Co-founder of SharpBrains and author of  The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age.  

Don’t outsource your brain. Not to media per­son­al­i­ties, not to experts, not to your smart neigh­bor… Make your own deci­sions, and mis­takes. And learn from them. That way, you are train­ing your brain, not your neighbor’s. The same way everyone with a car needs to learn the basics on how to drive and maintain a car…everyone with a brain needs to learn the basics on how our brains and minds work and how to maintain, if not enhance, them.  Alvaro Fernandez

Dr. Jeff Browne is Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and co-author of The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success.  Please visit the website for his son’s memorial scholarship.

Quit looking in all the same places for success.  Your brain is capable of so much more than routine.  Use your opportunity radar to find your own road to success don’t be an imitator or wanna-be.  Believe your brain has the capacity and components necessary to achieve your goals—particularly when you feed it and exercise it well.  Dr. Jeffrey L. Brown

Six Ways To Instantly Calm Your Brain and Body

5990453566_b8919b161f_zThe human being is the only animal that causes itself suffering with its own thoughts.

And it doesn’t end there.

Then, we suffer because we suffer when getting upset about being treated unfairly, mad about having an illness, or sad about going to bed sad yet another day.  The crazy thing is that this kind of unhappiness is totally a product of our brains which is at the same time good and bad.  If your brain is causing the suffering, it can also stop it.

Over millions of years of evolution, our brains developed neural networks producing pain and anxiety under certain conditions, which while effective for ensuring survival and passing on the genes, do not leave us feeling good.

For your protection, your brain is naturally vigilant, constantly scanning its environment for threats with a built-in negativity bias – better to err on the side of caution than to be eaten.  Negative experiences hold more weight with your brain and even get stored differently.  In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson writes:  “Your brain is like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

A car cuts in front of you, a rude comment by a co-worker, or a worrisome thought about the credit card balance can be interpreted as a threat by your brain which sounds the alarm causing your body to react. Being on alert all the time produces feelings ranging from mild malaise and disatisfaction, to moderate stress and depression, to intense trauma and mental illness. [Read more...]

Think Of The Possibilities Not The Problems

7521553928_dd675a845b_k-1024x434The other day, someone said four words to me that brought tears to my eyes.

“You are a writer.”

But, but, but….I didn’t major in English in college.  I don’t have any kind of certificate saying that I’m a writer.  Writing isn’t a practical way to earn a living.

Yet, here I am again, sitting at my computer typing away on the keyboard doing what I feel most passionate about, what I’m good at, and what makes my soul happy.

I started blogging in the second year after a pill-popping suicide attempt which resulted in a serious brain injury and losing custody of my two sons who immediately moved to a different state with their Dad.  And I thought things were bad before?  Rather than finding the escape I was desperately seeking, the suicide stunt only made my situation worse — much worse.

With the brain injury, I was mentally impaired to the point that I couldn’t tell you my phone number or kids’ ages, speak understandably, or coordinate the act of moving my arms and legs to run.  Making a grilled cheese sandwich was an applaud-worthy accomplishment.

My mind wasn’t capable of playing the in-living-color, non-stop movies of my brother’s sunken eyes and jutting cheek bones before he died of AIDs, me being escorted into my house by a policewoman to get stuff to stay elsewhere because my ex-husband had filed a restraining order against me, or the countless insults his lawyer spewed at me in court as proof that I was a bad wife and mother.

My brain couldn’t obsessively wonder how I could possibly be successful selling real estate when I hadn’t worked in almost a decade and wasn’t good with numbers in the first place or if my boyfriend, who had just broken up with me, had been seeing the woman I found him having dinner with before we split.

All my brain could handle was the right here and right now.

Over the coming years as I healed and slowly came back into consciousness, my brain connected the dots and memories came flooding back along with the capability to think intelligently and reason accompanied by my old friends rumination and worry.  My challenge was to hang onto the glimpse of peace, sense of child-like wonder, and ability to exist in the present that the brain injury had given me.

Being brain injured showed me that the pain which had built up over the years before my suicide attempt, finally causing me to crumble under the weight, was totally in my thoughts.  Yes, ugly things did happen in my life, but I was the one who had been torturing myself with their memories forcing myself to relive them over and over again in the present.  They were in the past.  I could leave them there. [Read more...]

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: [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]