sharing knowledge; enhancing wellbeing.
…that your brain grows until you reach the approximate age of 25? The area of the brain that mainly continues developing is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning (like focusing attention, problem solving, organizing thoughts, making predictions and decisions, inhibiting impulsivity by balancing short-term rewards with long-term consequences, being flexible – adjusting behavior as needed, delaying gratification, regulating intense emotions, and multitasking). Basically this part of the brain is super critical to our overall functionality as adults. Not only does this maturation timeline mean that 18 and 21 year olds (ages of legal adulthood and legal drinking ages in the U.S., respectively) aren’t always capable of making the best decisions (duh. Have you been downtown after midnight on a weekend or holiday?), but it also implies that after the age of 25 we all begin our descent down the long (hopefully!) road of cognitive decline. Remember, our bodies are always changing and shifting. If our brains are no longer growing, there is a possibility that (dependent upon our genetics, our environment, and our behavior) our brains are shrinking. But, don’t worry! Researchers are learning more and more about the brain each day, and one major area of research is completely dedicated to how to ward off cognitive decline as we age. So, what to do…?
1) Fish oil. Take it! Our brains are made of fat. Don’t believe me? Click on: the f-word. Still don’t believe me? Google it! If you can’t or won’t eat fish, do the next best thing and get your fatty acids from methods described in: allergic to fish.
2) Meditate. There is evidence that meditating just twenty minutes a day (and, try not to get overwhelmed, it’s a practice – no one is perfect! You can work up to 20 minutes per day by starting somewhere that seems reasonable to you and slowly working up until you can hang out in bliss for 20, no problemo) can help to maintain and even increase grey matter (for our purposes we can just think about this as being brain cells) in brain areas responsible for learning and memory, emotion regulation (goodbye, moodiness and inappropriate outbursts), self-awareness, and perspective taking (hello, compassion)! Additionally, grey matter in the amygdala (the area responsible for aggression and anxiety) can decrease with a regular meditation practice. Yes, please!
3) Challenge your mind. It can be quite easy to get into a rut. We are creatures of habit; thus, we tend to do the same things daily. We typically eat similar foods, watch the same television shows, drive the same route to work, do the same things for enjoyment, use the same dominant hand for brushing teeth and everything else, put our socks and shoes on the same way, et cetera. Humans do crave structure; however, when we do the same things that we normally do in the same way, we typically go unchallenged. When this happens, different and more automatic parts of the brain take over and we aren’t thinking as much about what we are doing. This can be really helpful (remember how much we had to think about driving when we first started and how now it’s a breeze? We can thank that automatic parts of our brain for this.) …and it can be harmful. There is no critical thinking, planning, or real decision-making component in doing something automatically. So, I guess it’s true – if you don’t use it, you lose it! What can you do to challenge yourself? Take a different route to get to a common destination, play an instrument, write in a journal, do puzzles, socialize (it’s all too common to socialize less and isolate more as you age, especially when experiencing cognitive decline), travel if you can (to NEW places! Try not to get stuck in a vacation rut too), read (if you always read fiction, try a non-fiction or at least a different genre of fiction, play games, take a class (they have tons at adult schools, community colleges, and in the community in general), and sooooo much more! Thinking of how to challenge yourself might even be a challenge… There is a world of possibilities out there!
3) Be sure to get 6-8 hours of sleep each night. There are so many unanswered questions about sleep in the world of research, but any dummy can understand that if we don’t sleep, we are pretty much useless. Even the highest dose of caffeine can’t save most people if they’ve gone 24+ without some shut-eye. Right? Right. Basically, what we do know about sleep is that it’s essential, and without it you will die (I know, I know… We are all going to die, but seriously, you will die faster than your peers). As well, there are different stages of sleep (I won’t get into them here, but if you want more information in this area just let me know!), and some of those stages are important for restoring the body and the mind. A good example of this is looking at people who suffer from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where a person stops breathing while they are sleeping, causing them to wake up repeatedly throughout the night (interrupting the natural progression of their sleep cycles). There is some evidence that sleep apnea is linked to cognitive decline and dementia, likely because of the interruption of sleep. (Note: if you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing a sleep disorder, please get help immediately. Sleep disorders are serious and there are sleep labs throughout the country dedicated to ensuring proper diagnoses and treatments for those who are suffering.) *Also, did you catch that there were two number 3 points? If so, good for you! Keeping that mind sharp, right?*
5) Exercise. Yep. I said it. Turn off the television (yeah, right… I know…), get yourself into your comfy workout clothes, and get moving. Do you have to sit in traffic to make it to the gym after work? No. You can walk up and down your stairs twenty (obviously arbitrary) times for all it matters (although there is a lot of evidence that being outside experiencing nature is very stress-relieving, so I might suggest you go move yourself out there)… just get that body moving. There is more and more proof piling up that our lack of movement in the modern age (that is: sitting in the car, only to sit at your desk, only to get home and sit on the couch – our meals are even prepped for us so we barely even have to stand in the kitchen!) is literally KILLING us. Again, we are all but mortals; however, I’d like to live to my genetically determined, ripe, elderly age, mind and body intact (as much as it can be!), thank you very much. If you’d like to as well, I suggest moving that body. It takes some serious effort to avoid sedentary activity in our current environment, but the benefits are more than worth it. We all know this, so just do it! Get motivated and get moving! (Tip: I hear the buddy system works wonders.)
6) Eat well. I know I talked about fish oil and good fat, but there is obviously more to eating well. Vitamins and nutrients are key to maintaining a well-oiled machine. Whole, fresh foods are going to be most beneficial. Avoid fake, processed food, GMOs, and artificial sweeteners. They are all linked to cognitive problems. No thank you! To share a bit of my personal experience, I’ve never felt better than when I stopped eating crappy, processed, unnatural foods and started eating whole, fresh, and organic. There are so many effortless meals that I have created by considering the flavors that my body is craving, the nutrients I know my body needs (a balance of macronutrients is key for sustainability – that means a balance of fats, proteins, AND carbohydrates – yes, I said it CARBOHYDRATES – they are not the evil twin of fat), and the amount of time I have to spend in the kitchen. And, leftovers are a key to my survival! Eating well does take some forethought – from the grocery store to the kitchen… but, there is a great comfort in knowing that I am taking care of my mind and body, and protecting myself (as much as possible) from the “dangers” of aging.
Believe it or not, there are eighty-year olds and beyond who still walk around the block, practice yoga, care for themselves, can carry on a meaningful conversations, and remember where they left their keys… Take the actions that you need to now and you could find yourself as a healthier and happier person – for life!