Doctor holding up a drawing of a human brain.

Living to 100: Keeping your Brain

Why is it that some individuals have a great memory no matter what their age and others struggle to remember even routine items?

First, we need to start with understanding our brain’s composition.   Dr. Majid Fotuhi in his book “Boost Your Brain” refers to our brains as “CogniCity, or a collection of neighborhoods (different lobes) connected by a complex series of highways, boulevards, and small roads.”

By the time we reach our 20’s our brains are fully developed and it starts decaying in our mid-50’s.  What really happens, as shown on MRIs, is that the cortex begins to thin and the white matter fiber bundles that are the connections between the lobes (carrying messages back and forth) begin to wither, primarily due to reduced blood flow.

The hippocampus (a small region in the brain) is the driver of our memory.  It processes all new information and decides what to keep and what to discard.  It begins to shrink after the age of 50 and continues to shrink at a rate of 0.5 percent a year.  This is the age when we start complaining of those “senior moments”.

The good news–and the bad news–is that we can control all of this based on our lifestyle choices.    The factors that raise the most havoc on your brain are:  alcohol abuse, traumatic brain injury, excess stress, sleep disorders, vitamin B12 deficiency, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

Working on our positive lifestyle practices is what makes the difference.  What we want to do is build the synapses, highways between the neighborhoods (links between the lobes), the blood vessels nurturing the brain, and the neurons within the brain.

Majid Fotuhi, M.D, Ph.D, in his book, “Boost your Brain” describes 4 methods to promote brain functioning and prevent decay. These methods include exercise, diet, mindfulness meditation and cognitive stimulation.

Exercise:  It is theorized that exercise promotes cardiovascular health, helping the heart pump more efficiently to all parts of the body, the brain included.  Although walking is better than not walking, the key is high-intensity interval exercise.  The recommendation is 30 minutes of vigorous exercise such as fast walking or preferably jogging following by 15 minutes of resistance training through weight lifting on most days of the week.

Diet:  In one study, led by Columbia University neurology professor Nikolaos Scarmeas, those who followed a Mediterranean diet showed only a 28 percent risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.  The Mediterranean diet is low in fat and cholesterol and high in fiber, omega-3 oils, vegetables, nuts and fruits.  This includes high antioxidant foods such as blueberries, apples, red grapes, spinach, beets, and tomatoes.  Dr. Fotuhi recommends Vitamin B12, D and E supplements as well.  Ask your primary care physician for his or her recommendation.

Mindfulness Meditation: This is a general term that refers to the practice of deliberate techniques aimed at inducing a state of relaxation.  Depending on the technique it can involve breathing exercises, directing your thoughts in a certain way, or repeating a mantra.  All the techniques have one goal: to train your mind so that you can bring yourself to a state of consciousness that benefits you in some way whether it is a state of increased relaxation, heightened awareness, enhanced concentration, or even an “enlightened” state of being.  Many counselors will advise that most people need training in order to accomplish this whether it is a yoga class at your local YMCA, or through a structured class offered at a Technical School, or through a Retreat Center such as the Siena Center in Racine, WI.

Cognitive Stimulation:  This includes continuing to stretch our brain throughout life and not just when we are in school.  Although I always thought that just being in the “work” world would continue to stretch our brains, Dr. Majid Fotuhi recommends that all of us need to focus on this goal by daily stretching our brains through memorization.  This can be done as easily as trying to memorize the phone numbers we use often.  This can also be done by learning to play an instrument or learning a language.  The computer program Luminosity is just such a formal program.  At St. Monica’s, we utilize a program called Dakim that seniors can access daily to continue to exercise their minds.

The bottom line is that dementia is not inevitable.  YES, we can control our memory capability throughout life, and we can make a difference through diet, exercise, meditation and cognitive stimulation.  We can keep our brains!

by  Loretta Baxter