Your Brain's Future: The Good And Bad News

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 anytime 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, Ph.D., 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 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 BrainHQ, Luminosity, 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 lifestyle, 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 class 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 smartphone 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/

23 Comments

  1. art alvarez Reply

    Dear Debbie,
    I look forward to your posts. You do a great service to those of us who are not able to express in words as well as you do with kindness and compassion flowing from your good heart. I’m that 82 year old with a computer, who loves to write to you solely out of my intuition that you are so well worth knowing.
    Everywhere I go I see people, young, middle aged and even some in their sixties. All of them carrying that damned phone that controls their lives and makes them look to me like zombies, who prefer their toy to human contact. Aristotle was right, “My friends, there are no friends.” If it weren’t for books and a few acquaintances who like to discuss them, it would be a bleak world out there for those of us who appreciate Art, the Theater, Literature, History, Philosophy and the humor in our lives that keeps us going. I’m grateful for your existence at this time in my life.
    Art

    • Art,

      You can read kindness and compassion in my words? I thought they were about Alzheimer’s! 🙂 No, I’m glad that comes through.

      I just finished writing a blog about what staring at a screen for hours on end is doing to our brains. Submitted it to one of the big websites. If they don’t pick it up, you’ll see it here. Either way, the news is not good. Focusing our vision on the central view for so many hours a day is actually narrowing our field of vision drastically. Besides that, it has just gotten to where people are plain rude!

      My pet peeve is when people pull out and look at their phones at dinner or when you are talking to them. Whaaaat?! No sir! But, I believe it’s becoming such a part of the culture that no one even considers it abnormal much anymore. Yes, electronics do have their uses and benefits. But, as Merzenich points out, are not to be substitutes for our brain or for interacting with each other. Put down the phone and engage in life, for goodness sake!

      I too find solace in my books and music, but when I am with people, I pay attention to them.

      All the best to you.

    • Dear Art
      I really liked what you said and I feel exactly the same (about screen-people being like zombies). I’m in my 20s but I’ve always felt I belong to a different time. I love arts, literature, psychology and I love a good soul to talk to. Can I sometimes write to you? here’s my email: silverthorn_000@hotmail.com

  2. art alvarez Reply

    Dear Debbie,
    How could I have left out Music from my list of wonderful things to appreciate? Beethoven, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mozart, Ella, Bach, to name a few of my faves.
    Art

    • Art,

      How dare you forget music! 🙂 Music is a BIG part of my life. When I was in isolation recovering from the brain injury, it was my only friend some days. I cannot begin to explain how important it was to me. While I do like some classical, Tibetan Bowls, instrumental ambient for meditating, I like indie rock most of the other time. My teenage sons say it’s country/rock. “You can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl!” 🙂

  3. Those are amazing statistic, Debbie. You woke me up, right away. Alzheimer’s has also been connected with impairments in the methylation cycle. Depending upon your specific mutations, you can sometimes supplement to improve methylation.

    • Hello Sandra. Welcome back! Glad you weathered the hurricane OK.

      The statistics are daunting, aren’t they? Having had a brain injury, I am at a higher risk for AD and there is also a family history. So, AD is always a concern of mine. I try to follow my own advice, and most of the time I do, but…. 🙂

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  5. Hi Debbie,

    Awesome post 🙂 every time I read a post regarding the brain and brain health I just feel like screaming at those people who don’t look after their brains and who take it for granted, and its not just screen time. Alcohol, smoking, stress, and the list goes on.

    I was diagnosed with neurological Wilson’s disease 14 years ago and it caused damage to my central nervous system (lesions in my brain and spinal cord), as a result I can no longer speak and have limited mobility. Although my condition has improved, 10 years into my diagnosis I learned the importance of meditation, physical activity, healthy diet, and reading! (exercise for the brain).

    I only wish that I had taken care of my brain earlier, not that it would have stopped the Wilson’s disease but perhaps it would have made my brain more capable at healing itself.

    Dahlia

    • Dahlia,

      Thank you for sharing. I know exactly what you mean because I feel the same way. BUT, I was one of the worst for taking my brain (and body and health) for granted before my brain injury. I smoked for 20 years, had an awful diet (did the whole artificial sweetener, low fat, fake food thing) and drank too much wine. I did exercise, but only out of vanity. Hooray for vanity! It wasn’t until my brain injury/suicide attempt that I cleaned up my act and made lifestyle and mental and behavioral changes that turned my life around. I had subtler warning signs, but I had to be clobbered with a major catastrophe before I made any significant changes.

      For this reason, I really feel like my brain injury was a blessing in disguise. Sure there are still some major challenges and frustrations, but my friend says “If you like where you are, you can’t complain about how you got there.” I like where I am.

      Hope you do. Blessings to you!

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  7. Your blog posts are beautifully written. They are cerebral, articulate, and full of compassion and humor, which makes them intriguing and memorable. They show careful research and identify useful resources. It is difficult to believe you suffered a brain injury given your ability to write so eloquently. I have read the list of all the activities and interventions you undertook to heal and rehabilitate your brain. That is amazing in itself.
    How long did it take for you to get back to a reasonable level of functioning? What losses did you actually suffer or what did you have to “relearn”? Did you suffer any permanent loss of memory?
    I was recently brain damaged during a questionable medical procedure and a year later I feel no better. It frightens me that I have no hope of any recovery.
    I had also been abusing my brain with stress, overwork, bad food, and little sleep prior to my injury, but did not heed the warnings my body gave me in the form of diabetes, high blood pressure, and fatigue. These illnesses were probably all related to long term antidepressant use which in turn caused severe depression which by increasing toxic medications culminated in an ill advised decision to get ECT. I ended up with brain damage and feel my injuries won’t heal, no matter what the intervention. I notice in a previous post a reference to hyperbaric oxygen therapy, but I see so many official reports suggesting that it is unproven and useless except for a few indications like burns or the bends.

    • Diane,

      Oh I have so much I want to say to you. I just did hbot today. It was miraculous in my healing and is the one thing I do regularly still because I can tell a difference. Immediately after I do it, my speech improves noticeably. IT WORKS as well as many of the other “alternative” therapies mentioned in my blogs that western medicine does not embrace. If I had listened to the “experts” I’d still be very impaired. Most other European countries use hbot as part of their established medical care. I don’t know what you’ve been reading, but there is all kinds of hard scientific proof of its use out there.

      The first thing you HAVE to do is quit relying on the medical “experts.” What is getting better worth to you? The question you should be asking is “Does it work FOR YOU?”

      I have to go to yoga. More later. Don’t give up hope. Recovery is possible!!

      Debbie

    • Diane, Hi again!

      It took years to recover. I am 7 years post injury. I would say that I quit focusing on recovery somewhere at the end of the fourth year, but other than right after the injury, I experienced the most dramatic improvement in the third year. I probably could achieve better manual dexterity and speech, but I felt that it was time to focus on making progress in my life and could live with both if they never got any better. But, I may commit to improving either at some future point.

      In the first year after my injury, I didn’t do any therapy and wasn’t cognizant enough to pursue any or research. I slept a great deal and let my brain heal naturally. It did improve substantially on its own, but was still far from normal functioning: speech, memory, thought processing speed, reasoning, intelligence. I took a dry erase board and learned how to write again. I memorized the multiplication tables again. But it wasn’t like I had to learn everything from scratch. All I had to do was jog my memory to make the connections again. The information was in there. Same with memories. Some were there, some were not. For example, I didn’t remember my childrens births, but looking at pictures brought the memories back.

      I don’t know what kind of injury you had or what your challenges are, but I can tell you that I learned that whatever I had difficulty with showed me exactly where I needed to work physically or mentally. If your memory is bad, do brain training to improve memory EVERY DAY until it improves. It will get better. I had miraculous results with Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program and Advanced Brain Technologies Brain Builder. Use your deficits to show you where to focus.

      Hbot was miraculous. Neurofeedback dramatically contributed to my healing. Brainwave Optimization. Cardio exercise. Yoga. Acupuncture. Cranio sacral massage. Diet. Supplements. Visualization. Meditation. These are what worked for me. You have to find what works for you. But something will work. You never know what until you try it.

      Your recovery is a puzzle. You have to find and put the pieces together. I cover all of these practices in blogs and there is lots of info on the net. Don’t look just to doctors to point you in the right direction. They can be useful, but you are the expert on YOU. What does your gut tell you about what you need to do? I learned to follow my intuition. Your body knows how to heal itself. Let it tell you. Get in touch with it through meditation.

      Most of the therapies are not covered by insurance. I had to sell my house to cover the costs. But I thought, “This is my future we are talking about here…my ability to make money.” Now I can make money to support myself. Brain injured, I could not. Also, a lot of the rehabilitation activities cost nothing and you can do them on your own.

      My point is DO NOT GIVE UP! Work for it. EVERY DAY. Make a commitment to yourself. You are worth it. Your happiness and future are worth it. It’s up to you. All the best to you!

      • Thank-you for taking the time to send me such a detailed reply. My situation is complicated. I have no speech or physical issues, but I am traumatized by the loss of about 3 years of long term memory with other gaps going further back. I panic whenever someone brings up events I cannot remember or I see items in my home i have bought and cannot recall where I got them. have lost an almost photographic memory and have difficulty now with short term memory and recall. I have anger and anxiety. I feel like my vibrant, bubbly personality was simply wiped away and I am diminished as a person. I taught for 31 years and was very independent and outgoing. So my injury is more psychological and mental health related
        Involving anxiety and depression. The medical response is more neurotoxic drugs to fix the problems. I am absolutely appalled by the traditional medical model and psychiatry in particular which destroyed my life. Needless to say, I have no faith in anything these confused and dangerous people have to offer. I am looking for alternatives, but they seem limited. I am having great difficulty accepting that I will never be the same, especially since I liked who I was before and I loved the way my brain worked.

        • Diane,

          My first point I want to make to you is QUIT thinking that there is no hope and no answer and that your life is destroyed. It IS not. I understand that you have lost a vital part of yourself and have to grieve that. It really is a death. Work on expressing your emotions and accepting the loss with guided meditaiton or writing therapy or see a mental health counselor.

          You cannot begin to heal until you accept the new you and want to move forward not backwards. I found this to be true in my case. I spent years looking back trying to get back to where I was. It was only when I started going forward that I saw real progress. Sure, there are deficits but there will be joy and blessings too. By defining yourself by your limitations, they become the focus of your energy. Make sense?

          I am not saying to live in an illusory world. Face the realities, but focus on the possibilities not the problems.

          Because your issues are mostly mental, I would encourage you to do hbot, Brainwave Optimization, and neurofeedback . (I have blogs with links about each. Search my blogs.) And brain training online on your own or with purchased programs will help immensely. These WILL improve your memory and recall drastically. Did mine. The brain is like a muscle. You’ve got to get yours back in shape.

          Mentally, these things brought me back into normal consciousness. I tried drugs, didn’t notice any improvement and did not take them for long.

          For depression and anxiety…meditation and mindfulness are the answer. Costs nothing and will change your life for the better and strengthen your brain. Did mine!

          You are very fortunate in a way. I think your brain issues will respond very successfully to training, mental tools, and alternative therapies. In cases of physical damage, you just never know. It does take time, persistence, and dedication, but YOU CAN change your brain and life.

  8. You are such a generous-hearted person. Thanks for all the suggestions and feedback. I am unfortunately very aware now that ECT is basically a series of closed head injuries that act like multiple concussions. The electrical injury breaks the blood brain barrier, causing tiny hemmorhages and the grand mal seIzures cause severe impairment. Neural connections are severed in the frontal lobes so it is like having an electrical lobotomy. It affects memory, IQ, personality; its effects seem worse than those you would sustain in a car crash or drug injury. So I am really terrified and feeling like my entire identity was shattered. I will look up neuro feedback, hbot, and brain optimization on your previous blogs. I just feel so defeated and angry at myself for letting so called medical experts injure what was simply an over stressed and distressed brain. Thanks for your words of encouragement and advice.

    • Diane,

      Why on earth would medical “experts” do this to someone? In the hopes of helping too!?! The ignorance and carelessness of the “experts” never ceases to amaze me.

      Have heart. In my case and other closed head injuries the neuronal connections are severed. That IS exactly what your brain is good at repairing and regrowing naturally through neuroplasticity. Your brain has the amazing capability to repair itself and grow new neurons without you doing anything. But, there is lots you can do to encourage and support this process: cardiovascular exercise, brain healthydiet, supplements, sleep, water, visualization, meditation.

      Hbot oxygenates and supports your brain in repairing itself. Neurofeedback, and Brainwave Optimization train your brain to perform optimally down to specific sites and wavelengths.

      Get to a professional neurofeedback or Brainwave Optimization practitioner. They can help you. I KNOW they can. Start brain training on your own. Start meditating, visualizing, and exercising. Eat a brain healthy diet and drink lots of water. Take supplements. Make sure to get lots of sleep.

      Like I said before, in a way, you are fortunate because, given the right support and encouragement, I KNOW that your brain can repair itself. You have to make it happen.

      Neuroplasticity takes time. Your brain has to actually grow new connections, for goodness sake. It could take years, but, if you consistently work at it, IT WILL HAPPEN.

  9. I have very mixed feelings about brain training. I think most people’s lives are already very unbalanced with way too much “screen time”. All the time spent brain training might better be spent socializing, spending time in nature, creating something, exercising, or meditating. I think younger people, particularly, are using it as an excuse to simply play more games but without the guilt. Like eating fat-free chocolate cake. 🙂

  10. Deane,

    I hear you and can’t say that I completely disagree. As with everything in life, it’s all about balance.

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