November 24, 2010
2 Simple Ways to maintain a Young Brain
I sometimes jokingly remark "When I was 18 I knew everything".
If you live with teenagers, you can probably appreciate my quip best.
But in all honesty, the older we get and learn about the world,
the more we understand how little we truly understand about it.
And how many more questions each piece of new knowledge brings.
Those of us who "knew it all" in our youth, are ultimately humbled by the time we reach our adult years.
Yet in reality there may actually be more truth to that joke than we actually care to admit.
New brain research over the past decade has revealed that our brain capacity definitely declines with age.
And unfortunately that decline can start as early as around age 25! Yikes!
And sure enough, as I am about to transition into my 40s,
I must admit I have already noticed a definite decline in my own memory abilities,
which, sadly, weren't anything to brag about to begin with!
When it comes to reasoning ability, research suggests we tend to reach our peak at about age 28.
And memory recall is thought to also peak in our late 20s. (sure seems like it did for me!)
And as new research suggests, our ability to learn new things
(aka short term memory) tends to also decline beginning in our 30s,
yet our long term memory can remain in tact well into our 50s and 60s.
In other words, my parents might have trouble remembering where they parked their car at the grocery store,
or what they had for breakfast,
but they will happily recite to you each and every most embarrasing story of my childhood on request and without blinking an eye.
Generally speaking, though, on tests of short term memory recall, processing speed, and problem solving ability,
the prognosis is not good. We truly WERE better in our youth and we tend to decline rapidly as we age.
But the good news is that this is not true for everyone. And what researchers are now trying to focus on is why?
What are some of these differences that would cause most people's brain to decline so rapidly yet some to perform as if much younger?
Most importantly, what are some of the things we can do now to help slow down this aging process of our brains?
Turns out there may be a couple rather simple things we can do now to help our brains.
The first being the same advice doctors have been preaching to us for years to help our overall health: exercise.
Yes, exercise, just as it is good for our body overall, new research suggests this is especially important for our brain as well.
A 2006 study by scientists at the University of Illinois found that
"three vigorous, 40-minute walks a week over six months improves memory and reasoning.
It also spurs the birth of new brain neurons"! That's right, even in your 50s or 60s, many years past your 20s,
scientific evidence suggests simple exercise can still help improve your brain's abilities
or at least will keep you from further major declines.
And as much as I hate to burst anyone's bubble who enjoys a good crossword puzzle,
don't count on it to keep you mentally sharp.
Recent studies on this have shown no scientific evidence to support this belief.
But what CAN help improve your learning ability and memory recall functions at any stage of yor life
is the same thing that helps babies learn and develop so quickly.
That may simply be their exposure to a "mentally stimulating environment".
A lab experiment on rats, for example, who were given water laced with lead,
found those rats living in a stimulating environment
showed a better ability to learn than those in the control group. And when you think about it, it makes sense.
Babies and young children do seem to learn things very quickly but this is because EVERYTHING is new to them!
Their whole world is mentally stimulating!
So the second recommendation for how to keep your brain young, is to simply step out of your comfort zone and continually challenge yourself.
Traveling to new places and learning about new cultures is thought to help keep us mentally sharp.
Learning a new language in our later years would definately help, too.
Or even simple tasks like learning to brush our teeth or write with the opposite hand.
Anything that feels uncomfortable and causes your brain to take notice and re-evaluate or learn something new.
If you'd like to read more on this subject, check out these Newsweek articles as a starting point:
So this Thanksgiving, as you celebrate with family and friends and think of what's head for 2011,
consider what new challenges you want to tackle in the New Year that will help improve your brain.
And remember to add a weekly dose of hiking to that to-do list!
Happy Neuron building!