Keep Your Brain Forever Young

As we age physically, we also age mentally. Many things can expedite that process, like chemotherapy, emotional trauma, injury, medications, or other treatments. The one we all deal with, though, is time. At a certain point, we have to be a little more intentional about “working out” the brain as if it were a muscle in the body.

What Happens in the Brain, Changes the Brain

There are a lot of factors at play in the brain as we age. While we develop new neurons throughout our lives and reach our peak brain size in our 20s, the brain eventually experiences a decline in volume and decrease in blood flow. The miraculous thing about the brain, though, is that studies have shown it can regrow and is capable of learning and retaining new information. In other words, it is capable of neural reorganization.

When the brain changes, we tend to change. Mental tasks become a little more difficult, as do forming new long-term memories and performing certain mental operations. Our cognitive function becomes more of a challenge. Other parts of who we are, like our confidence, social life, or work life may also suffer.

That’s why, to help maintain the brain’s plasticity—its ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections—we have to put in more effort by creating our own mental stimulation and treatment. There are several ways you can do this.

Active Body, Active Brain

Woman CyclingWhen you work out your body, you work out your brain. While I don’t recommend going crazy and starting P90X or other high-intensity training, I do recommend some physical activity. Studies have shown that physical activity is a promising strategy that influences the brain to enhance cognitive function and emotional function, particularly in late adulthood. Exercising regularly is great for refreshing the immune system, which can improve cognitive function and information processing by increasing volume of the hippocampus(the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system). So, go for a “fast walk” or purchase a stationary exercise bike so you can “Netflix and cycle.”

Eat, Sleep, Think

By eating right, you’re doing your brain a favor. For years, scientists have suspected that the intake of specific nutrients can impact cognitive processes and emotions. A primary nutrient? Omega-3 fatty acids, which can be obtained from dietary fish. This nutrient can improve synaptic and cognitive functioning “by providing plasma membrane fluidity at synaptic regions.”

Also, give yourself a rest. Circulation and the brain is imperative to the proper nutrients and oxygen reaching the brain cells. To maintain that proper circulation and brain energy metabolism, we must receive the right amount of sleep. Think of it like this: it’s a great excuse to sleep in. But really, make your sleep a priority. Your brain will thank you 5 to 10 years from now. (And when the alarm goes off.)

Multi-Task

Autumn CandlesOkay, that’s a little misleading. Rather, let your senses multi-task. Some studies over time have shown that, if you can’t give your full attention to both activities, you’ll experience a deficit in cognitive function. But, if you allow your senses to multitask, you could be doing some wonders for your brain. (It’s fun, too.) Perform two sensory tasks at the same time, such as watching the rain and listening to jazz. Or, listening to jazz and smelling the Fresh Autumn candle you just lit. Stimulate to form new connections.

Get Artsy

Tap into the passionate part of you that has a soft spot for the arts. That could be music, visual art, drawing, painting, playing an instrument, reading. There are so many options, and they all stimulate the mind in unique, creative ways that help with abstract thinking. One in particular that has become incredibly popular in the last 5 years: coloring books for grown-ups.

Music, whether listening or learning to play it, is always a great choice, as it is complex and multisensory and has a positive influence on neuroplasticity in several regions of the brain. It’s the integration of audiovisual information as well as appreciation of abstract rules that has been shown to improve cognitive skills of attention, control, motor function, visual scanning, and executive functioning.

Change is Good

Making small adjustments or changes to your regular routine can stimulate your brain to create some new thinking pathways, new connections. That could mean just taking a new route to work, eating something new for lunch, changing your computer background, anything simple like that.

Stay Positive

Don’t let the ageist stereotypes about memory decline keep you from being hopeful about your brain’s future functioning. Confidence is hard to craft, but treat yourself kindly, take the measures needed to be healthy all around, and understand that the more positive you are about your memory, the more likely you are to improve it.

Lastly, Use Science

To scientifically assess and improve neuroplasticity and performance, you can always involve professionals and utilize neuromodulation, which can come in the form of neurofeedback, Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (pEMF), Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), and Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS). These stimulating neuro techniques use technology in a non-invasive way to increase blood flow and functional connectivity in the brain. In other words, our brains have taught us how to improve our brains.

This blog was previously posted in Prime Women magazine here.

Your Brain and Back-to-School Anxiety (For Kids and Adults)

It Happens to the Best of Us.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach, or student, the new school year can bring up some anxiety. For parents, it might be sympathetic anxiety for their kids. For teachers, it could be anxiety to get everything done, get the classroom set up, being in front of kids all day, the list goes on. To prepare yourself and your kids for the new school year in a healthy way, here are some tips.

 

Mentally Prepare

Mental preparation for almost anything starts with acknowledging it and the worries it brings you. So, for yourself, communicate your concerns or worries to someone who loves you, like your partner, a spouse, a friend. Next, allow your kids to also communicate their concerns. Give them the platform and open space to do so by setting them up in a healthy, productive conversation.

When they present a fear that you can’t really prevent from happening, avoid coddling and using false hope as a mechanism. Instead, be realistic and teach them how to problem solve. By doing this, you naturally work through the issue, providing some potential solutions and preparations that will likely put their minds at ease.  

When the summer ends, a lot of kids feel like the fun does too, and thus, are less enthusiastic for the school year to start. Show your kids that, while summer vacation is over, the fun isn’t. There are plenty of things to look forward to in the upcoming year: game nights, weekend activities, sleepovers, blanket forts, ball games, etc. Keep that positive energy flowing into the fall.   

 

Physically Prepare

This one may overlap a little with mental preparation, but let’s try to focus on some healthy physical practices that can improve mental preparation. For parents or teachers, before the school year starts, treat yourself a little more than usual. That could mean taking a few long baths, getting a massage, or practicing some great relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation, yoga–anything that can make the heart calm and bring your concentration back in a productive way. Teach the same to your kids before the year starts, and teachers, teach them to your students, possibly on their first day. This will really help set the tone of the classroom: positivity.

Next, eat well. Energy is important for the upcoming school year, which will include events that require lots of high functioning. Plus, when you have a healthy stomach, it directly impacts the brain in a positive way. Similarly, sleep well and on a routine. If that means practicing those relaxation techniques at night, reading something “boring” before bed, or drinking some non-caffeinated chamomile tea, then go for it. The same goes for the kids. Mental rest is a must for a good first day, a fresh start. You don’t want them to be falling asleep in their first class of the new school year.

 

Get Organized, Stay Focused

Getting organized is easier said than done, especially when you have so much to GET done, as a parent, teacher, or student. Try some new approaches to getting organized. Studies have shown that there is a positive impact on productivity when writing things down, physically–To Do lists. It demonstrated, in those studies, that planning activities via lists reduced the “burden” on the brain, allowing the brain to sort through other things easier, leading to completed tasks.

Get back to a routine. The brain can form habits through repetition, both good and “bad.” That means, over the summer, your kids may have developed the routine of sleeping in. Try to get them to kick the habit by starting over with repeating a new routine, one that is more accustomed to the school year.

Other research shows that multitasking can lower your productivity. Try your best to give focus to just one thing at a time. Again, much easier said than done. But if you can manage to practice this, you’ll notice an increase in productivity. In fact, it has been estimated that multitasking can reduce productivity up to 40%. Remember: slow is fast, and fast is slow. Ever notice how the faster you try to do something, the more mistakes you make and have to take extra time to fix them? Most of us do. So, just take a minute, do the task, and move on to the next.

 

Be “In It” Together

When getting ready for the school year, go school supplies shopping together. Let them choose their backpacks and take some joy in the process. Read with them, or oversee their summer projects with them. Eat dinner together and encourage open conversation, as mentioned previously. Make the back-to-school process as fun, low-key, and low-pressure as you can. Show them that, while you’re separated throughout the day, you’re still on their team. And you’ll be there at the end of the day, too. Show them you care enough to be involved and make these decisions together, while still giving them freedom to make some of their own.

 

Have a great school year!

Brain Awareness Week: Maintain A Healthy Brain

Next week is Brain Awareness Week, an appropriate time for a quick refresher on how to keep your brain healthy and functioning at its best. It’s also a time to really appreciate what our brains do for us. The brain is, in a sense, the nucleus of all of our decision-making, emotional experiences, physical movements, memory, and much more. As such an integral part of our existence, the brain should be treated as healthily as possible. Here are some ways to do that.

Keep Learning

In other words, exercise your brain. Studies show that mentally stimulating activities help the brain to create new connections between nerve cells, possibly even creating new cells. In turn, this improves “neural plasticity,” which is the brain’s ability to adapt. Examples of mentally stimulating activities include reading, taking school courses, word puzzles, chess, or even more creative tasks, such as painting, drawing, knitting, and other crafts in general.

Exercise

Actual physical exercise has been shown to improve brain health as well, as it increases the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the part of the brain in charge of thought. Much like mental stimulation, using your body’s muscles helps the brain become more efficient, plastic, and adaptic. It also lowers blood pressure, helps balance blood sugar levels, improves cholesterol levels, and reduces stress. All of these benefit the health of the brain and the body as a whole.

Be Quiet

In today’s world, everything is moving so rapidly, and our schedules are stressing us out. From working out, keeping up with our social lives, maintaining our full time jobs, and having relationships, families, and sometimes even dealing with trauma, there is a lot going on in our heads. In fact, it’s all happening so fast that our brains are sometimes unable to process the information and our environment. At some point, your brain just needs silence–a practice that has been shown to create new cells in the brain and speed up mental processing.    

Have a Healthy Diet

Not only is a healthy diet good for your body, but it also has effects on cognitive processes and emotions. Studies have shown that dietary factors influence neuronal function and brain plasticity, potentially improving cognitive ability. With a decent focus on fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils, and plant sources of proteins, you have a brain-healthy diet that is less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.

Have a Healthy Social Life

Social connectedness has a lot of benefits, including decreased feelings of depression, living longer, stronger immune system, and even reduced risk of dementia. Studies have shown that those who connect with others tend to perform better on tests of memory and other cognitive skills. This is not to say that anyone should force themselves to be around people constantly, but rather to find people–even a select few–to connect with and confide in. Having that deep connection with others makes life less lonely and more genuine.

Get Some Feedback: Neurofeedback

Sometimes, to maintain a healthy brain, you have to look at the brain itself. Through neurofeedback–a form of biofeedback that relies on brainwave patterns and measures brain wave activity to indicate how a person is functioning–you can learn to improve and strengthen brain waves. In turn, it improves learning, focus, and attentiveness.

Happy Brain Awareness!

Brain Awareness Week, in a sense, is “awareness of awareness.” Your brain gives you the ability to even be aware, so give back to your brain. By doing so, you give back to your entire body and your well-being altogether.

 

SOURCES

Cell Phone Addiction is Changing Our Brains

We may not even notice we’re doing it, but it has become a primary form of entertainment, information, and now addiction: the mobile device. The word “addiction” is derived from the Latin word, “addico,” which means “to devote or surrender to” or “enslaved by.” Today, it’s seen as a chronic disease that can actually change our brains’ functioning and structure. Without much awareness, we depend on our smart devices and act on that dependency compulsively.

For adolescents, it’s even more of an issue, with 94% of teens going online using a mobile device daily, and 24% of them going online “almost constantly.” According to 2015 Pew Research, 46% of smartphone owners said “they couldn’t live without” their devices. With the usage prevalence, some researchers even consider it to be one of the greatest addictions of the current century.

A team of South Korean researchers have found that kids who used the internet or messed with their phones compulsively experienced an increase in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, to the part of the brain involved in addiction. In other words, dopamine is part of the reward system of the brain, and rewarding behavior can lead to addiction. Dopamine also plays a role in learning and memory, so repeated exposure causes nerve cells to communicate in a way that associates liking something with wanting it, driving us to pursue it.

Behaviors of Cell Phone Addiction

Cell phone addiction can manifest itself in many behaviors, but it’s mostly a combination of some of these.

  • Checking phone in the middle of the night
  • Anxiety at not having the device with you–even if it’s not lost. Or, feeling a drug-like withdrawal
  • Checking phone as many as 900 times a day (addicted)–while the average person checks their phone 110 times a day
  • Sleep deprivation can be a symptom that affects school performance and increases irritability (61% of teens say cell phone use has negative impact on schoolwork)
  • Usage creates family arguments
  • Have less face-to-face interactions/conversations
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Cell phone usage becomes a way to escape stress and reality
  • Constant use, even while doing other things, such as driving and walking (11 teens die every day texting while driving)
  • Experience something called “text neck,” which is chronic strain from looking down
  • Eye strain/blurred vision from focusing on blue light and small screen
  • Decreased neural connectivity, affecting emotional control
  • Experience phantom vibrations, which is when we feel a non-existent cell phone alert
  • There are co-occurring disorders, such as deepening depression with lack of human interaction and increase in anxiety when cell phone is not available
  • Sleeping with phone under pillow (90% of 18-29 year olds sleep with their smartphones)

Setting Smartphone Boundaries

In the end, if it interferes with quality of life, relationships, and career, it’s time to set some restrictions for your teens and/or re-evaluate your own dependence. First, create self-awareness about how much data you’re actually using and then restrict yourself or your children’s data usage. For your kids (and you), designate a time without cell phones or devices. We all need to be brought back down to earth; otherwise, we (especially younger ones) are only going to become dependent upon the dopamine released when using an electronic device. Our brains need fresh air and physical/motor activity for good mental health.

Reward this “tech time-out” with positive reinforcement, and ultimately, be a role model. Show your kids–and even your adult family and friends–that life is good when you put down the phone. Connecting with your surroundings and those around you is just as important as (if not more than) connecting with your friends across the country or reading up on the royal wedding.

Is this easy to do? No.

Is it doable? Yes.

Is it necessary? Absolutely.

SOURCES:

Why Can’t I Get Motivated?

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked the question, “What part of the brain can we tap into for more motivation? Is there a spot that we can focus on?”

That is a hard question to answer, because motivation comes from within; within the mind, body, and spirit. Research shows that both motivation and attention are controlled by the prefrontal cortex, which can be thought of as the “executive center” of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex, which continues to mature into early adulthood, controls functions such as planning, decision making and the ability to delay gratification.

There is a whole chapter on ‘Attention and Motivation’ in The Dana Guide to Brain Health, a great resource for anyone looking for more information, that explains the prefrontal lobe are its role in formulating complex goals and intentions. The authors note that “this means that the human brain is capable of creating models of the world not only as it is, but as we want it to be. The human brain is able to create models of the future. This is called intentionality. But merely creating a model of the future is not enough. We must have the ability to strive to change the world as it is into the world we want it to become. This ability is called motivation. Without motivation, no life challenge of any degree of complexity can successfully be met.”

We use the frontal lobes to set our short and long term goals, as well as to prioritize and keep our attention from being distracted from our goals. There is more to motivation that just setting a goal, as everyone is not goal oriented. Different people get motivated in different ways. For some people, motivation must come through positive reinforcement, such as:

  • Killing them with kindness; showering them with support. A positive brain approach.
  • Treating them with trust and respect.
  • Creating challenges.  Getting them excited!
  • Incentives and rewards.
  • Inspiring them – make them believe in themselves.

Inspiration – stimulating our mind and emotions to a high level of feeling and activity. Many of us can be inspired by the words of great leaders. One that rings especially true for me comes from Gandhi, who said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” We may get inspiration from a speech we hear, a story we read, or a simple act of kindness that we see during our daily lives. Poetry moves us in different ways. Music is a powerful vehicle for motivation; just ask anyone who feels the beat of their favorite song fueling them to run that extra lap, or work just a little bit harder the next time they exercise.

For me, motivation occurs on all levels, cognitively, emotionally and spiritually. I want to share this video with you that provided the inspiration for this blog. Just watch it. Texas County Reporter: Blind Quilter It will touch you in a way you didn’t expect.

Go explore your local library, the internet, or even ask your friends and family for sources of inspiration. Find something that rings true for you personally, and use that as your own personal call to arms, as your mantra to spur you forward towards healthy behaviors. However, if you still find yourself saying “none of that works for me, no matter how hard I try” and you feel out of control, you should stop blaming yourself and start wondering. Ask yourself, could there be a medical reason? Is your brain out of balance and not working the way it needs to? Are you depressed?  These are questions that require investigation. If you think you were born that way and can’t change it, you are wrong. You can. Seek the help of a neurologist or neuropsychologist who can provide you with the tools and treatment to help you heal yourself.

You can create positive change in your life!