When I was in medical school in the 1960s, the prevailing belief was that once we reached physical maturity, our brains ceased to make new brain tissue. Therefore, all of the conditions associated with aging gradually depleted the neurons in our brains, causing them to atrophy until we eventually succumbed to dementia … Depressing, right?
Fortunately, we were wrong. We’ve since learned that our brains are not the static organs we once thought they were. They are actually dynamic and have the incredible potential for growing, rewiring, and healing.
Neurogenesis, or the ability to make new neurons, and neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to reorganize and build new neural pathways, continue well into old age, which means that we are, in fact, "architects" of our own brains.
With that in mind, and in honor of November's National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month, I'd like to share the two most important things we can all do to prevent brain decay:
1. Keep learning new skills (they're a virtual fountain of youth).
Think of the brain as 100,000 miles of interconnected roads, or neural pathways. Every time we learn something new, recall a fact, or recognize someone, messages travel like cars along these pathways at nearly 300 miles per hour to get us to our destination (i.e., enable us to perform a task).
For example, say you want to learn something new, like the list of presidents or how to play a song on the guitar. Think of that skill as a destination, like Boston. Once you’ve learned that skill, you’ve built a neural pathway to the city. Keep doing it, and you’ve soon created a better, faster freeway to get there.
But stop using that road, and eventually potholes develop and you won’t be able to get there as fast or at all.
In other words: Use it or lose it! When we use the skills and knowledge we have, the many connections in the brain remain in the best shape they can be. Don’t use them, and they become more difficult to use through a process known as synaptic pruning, in which the brain atrophies in areas where these functions are rarely used.
So what do I recommend? Continue doing those Sudoku puzzles, playing the guitar, speaking a second language, and cooking new recipes. Neuroplasticity and effective neurogenesis can only occur when the brain is stimulated by environment or behavior.
And the added benefit of learning something new? When we are fully focused on a task, we become mindful and less stressed. Which leads me to my second point:
2. Use mindfulness to manage stress and protect your brain.
Within the hippocampus, the memory area of our brains, new cells appear. However, not all survive because stress and depression decrease neurogenesis. The hippocampus, in fact, is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease, bringing into question just how large a role depression and stress are in the development of the disease.
Sadly, we as humans are the only mammals (as far as we know) capable of self-inducing the stress-producing “fight-or-flight” mechanism with our thoughts.
In other words, we can get ourselves worked up over a missed deadline and trigger the same bodily responses as though we were suddenly trapped in a cage with an angry lion. And we can maintain that level of stress for days … weeks … months … even years after the threat is gone.
How can we combat this? Rather than let your thoughts become the driver of your emotions, observe your mind as it begins to get wound up with worry and negativity.
Simply practicing mindfulness and observing your thoughts puts you back in control so that your emotions don't trigger the stress response. Don’t judge your mind; just notice. Wow, look how my mind is getting itself all out of joint over this thing. This reminds you that you are not your mind — and that you can control what you think. This will result in lowering your stress.
The bottom line: By keeping your mind engaged and managing the self-induced stress response, you can help your brain continue to function at high levels for a lifetime.
Photo Credit: iStock photo