03 Dec Senior Moments at 30: Exercises to Stimulate and Retrain Your Brain
We’ve all heard that drugs and alcohol can kill brain cells. But when we find our hair dryer in the refrigerator and misplace our car keys for the fifth time in a week, what we really want to know is, “How do we make brain cells grow back?”
The truth is, it’s not the brain cells you want to increase, it’s the connections between them. These “synapses” carry information between brain cells, and the more connections you have, the more processing power you have. That means faster thinking and learning. And contrary to what you may have heard — such as “your IQ can’t change” — enhancing your brain is possible through new, repetitive, high-intensity input.
“The root of learning — and brain stimulation — is about improving your cognitive skills,” explains Tanya Mitchell, Director of Training for LearningRx, a national ‘brain training’ franchise. “Things like auditory and visual processing, memory, processing speed, comprehension, short- and long-term memory, logic and reasoning, and attention are the underlying tools that enable us to successfully focus, think, prioritize, plan, understand, visualize, remember and create useful associations, and solve problems. Part of the reason that something like tutoring often doesn’t work on people with learning disabilities is because it doesn’t do anything to improve their cognitive skills. It’s simple rehashing old material, not retraining their brains to make new connections.”
And retraining brains to make new connections, or “brain training,” is now taking the world by storm. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association proved that mental exercises improve the brain much like physical exercises improve the body. The study only solidified what many — especially Baby Boomers — already believed, as is apparent by the recent surge of “brain training” video game sales for aging adults. (The best news of all? The AMA study was done using senior citizens. Now if your PARENTS can improve their brains with mental exercises, there’s certainly hope for you!)
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Perhaps the most compelling example of how brain training works was from a study done on the brains of “good readers” vs. dyslexic readers. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRIs) to review the patterns of both groups, scientists found that while good readers utilize pathways mostly located in the back of the brain with limited activity in the front, dyslexics show underactivation in the back and overactivation in the front. And here’s the kicker: when dyslexics underwent intense, effective training in reading (called “cognitive skills therapy”), there was actually a transfer of brain activity to the more efficient automatic processing centers naturally used by good readers! The key was to increase the connections in the part of the brain that is most effective at automatically decoding and deciphering based on stored and fully processed sound/word/meaning associations.
So how exactly do you increase the number of connections in your brain? Just like you work any other muscle: repetitive exercises. Here are a few to get your started:
- ¿Habla español? Learning a new language requires that you analyze new sounds, which not only improves auditory processing skills, but also memory. Most local libraries have foreign language CDs or videos that you can check out, or you can sign up for a class at your local community college.
- Count on it. The Sudoku has taken the world by storm. You can’t stand in line at the grocery store without seeing a pocket-size booklet. The numbers (but not math) game can help increase your logic and reasoning skills, as well as memory. And because logic and reasoning are skills that can (to a certain extent) be taught, there are now strategy books for the game. Look for Sudoku booklets that offer gradient difficulties (easy, medium and difficult) so you can work your way up.
- Lose the list. Using mnemonics (triggers to aid memory using visual imagery or sounds, such as rhyming) is a great way to boost your brain while developing a system to remember things when you just can’t get to a piece of paper. Here’s one example of a number system: 1=tree (think of the one trunk), 2=legs (think two legs), 3=stool (three legs), 4=truck (4 tires) and 5=glove (5 fingers). Link the items that you need to remember to your memory objects. If you’re upstairs and realize you need to buy toilet paper, envision yourself wrapping a tree in toilet paper. While you’re emptying your trash, you run out of bags, so you visualize yourself hopping around on two legs in the garbage bag. You just ate the last of the yogurt, so picture yourself pouring yogurt all over the stool. When you get to the grocery store, just remember your number system and what you linked to them.
- Get in the game. Play board games like chess or Scrabble, or surf the Web for free brain-boosting games, like those found at www.eons.com. Trivia games can boost memory, jigsaw puzzles can help visual and spatial skills and Mah Jong can help executive function (the capacity to control and apply your mental skills). Although cliché, scientists are proving that when it comes to your brain, “use it or lose it” is an old adage worth heeding. Look for ways to stimulate your mind on a daily basis and you’ll likely not only remember where you put your keys, but someday, you might be able to recall the names of your great-great-grandchildren.