Mental Gymnastics To Keep Your Brain Bouncing Back
The Plastic Brain
By David Hart, Ph.D.
In honor of June as Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, I’d like to discuss plastic. But first, a question: can memory be improved and maintained as we age or are we all destined for an insidious breakdown of the cognitive process of sensing, storing, and retrieving information (i.e., learning)?
For those of you who believe that learning and memory can be maintained and even improved as we age, you’re onto something. As the human brain ages, comparable to the human body, it begins to undergo structural and functional decline. Our brains may not be as efficient at learning names or remembering where we parked our car. We may have to work harder to learn new information, store, and then recall what we’ve learned, but the brain has the capacity to compensate for age related cognitive decline and science has proved it.
If I were to ask you to strengthen your bicep muscle, and your muscle was healthy, would you be able to? Yes, if you develop a plan to do so. You might lift a specific weight for a 3 sets of 10 repetitions several days a week. After a period of time, if you kept up with your plan, you’d have a stronger muscle. The same principle of plasticity applies to strengthening a healthy, older brain, as well.
An enormous amount of research on the process of neuroplasticity over the last two decades has concluded the human brain – in a healthy older adult – never stops growing and adjusting to its environment. Growth, though, does require increased focus and attention. And this leads to the most important lesson related to improved memory: recommit yourself to the art of concentration. The aging brain is more susceptible to distraction and contemporary life is full of it. Environmental disruptions, physical pain, hearing/vision loss, and emotional stress can distract seniors from giving new information their undivided attention. If better working or short-term memory enhancement is your goal, first learn to limit distractions and pay attention.
It’s worth noting that basic memory enhancement techniques can also make a difference. For example, in a recent study, older adults who received just three sessions of strategic memory training improved their ability to recall items from a single list immediately after it was presented. In classes that I have taught on the subject, participants are trained to strategically “code” information so that it can be retrieved at a later time. Memory strategies vary depending on what time or date (seconds, minutes, days, weeks, or years) one would like the ability to recall the stored information. Here’s a simple list of memory enhancement techniques for further investigation.
Categorization: Organize larger amounts of information into smaller bits. A solid application of this concept is rather than attempt to remember a list of single items, you may organize your list by types of food (dairy, meats, and organics) or by points along your typical route through the store.
Rehearsal using imagery: Different from rote memorization, rehearsal requires action and a little bit of creativity. Mnemonics are excellent examples of the rehearsal technique. For instance, today I have to pick up the dry cleaning, take my kitty to the vet, pay the electric bill, and have dinner with a friend. A mnemonic might be: “the Cheshire Cat needs help getting into his favorite jacket to make the tea party on time”. Are you wondering how this applies? Cheshire Cat (vet appointment and “electric eyes”); Jacket (dry cleaners); tea party (dinner).
Relate: One of the more common techniques, you might try associating a new bit of information with what you already know. This works especially well with names.
Physical exercise: The most effective strategy to stimulate neuronal growth and synaptic connections, the neurological base for the cognitive function of memory.
For more information on memory techniques, visit www.health.harvard.edu.
Challenges with memory is a normal part of aging. Memory loss is not. There is a qualitative difference between forgetting the name of person that you recently met and not remembering the name of a friend you’ve known for years. If I park my car at Nordstrom I may forget exactly what aisle to find my car but I won’t be looking for it in the lot adjacent to JC Penny. If you are experiencing memory loss, frequently complain about your memory, or have others telling you that you memory is impaired, please reach out to a trusted healthcare provider. Memory loss can be the result of several treatable causes. For the rest of you, go forth and get to work! Remember, no pain, no gain, no brain!
Until next time, be well.