Part 2: Super Memory and the Anti-Aging Brain
Welcome back! In our first session together, we explored the foundations of creating a super brain, including:
- Developing a matrix for a positive lifestyle
- Making healthy choices an effortless habit
- Nurturing the best inner environment for our brain
- Tapping into the power of self-awareness
- Cultivating happiness and wellbeing every day
This week in Part 2 of our Super Brain Solutions series, we will deepen our exploration as we focus more specifically on how we can use our brain to stay healthy as we age, to maximize our memory, and help stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
In a recent survey of people over the age of fifty, more than half of the respondents listed Alzheimer’s as the scariest disease imaginable. This is a disease that slowly robs you of yourself by unraveling your entire tapestry of memories. In its cruel progression, Alzheimer’s destroys the areas of the brain devoted to memory and learning.
For decades in the last century, researchers were trying to figure out the causes of Alzheimer’s simply by looking at brain autopsies. We got nowhere. It was like trying to understand the game of baseball by getting to the park after the game had already ended. The huge break in our understanding came from genetic discoveries that Dr. Tanzi and others made in the late 1980s and mid-1990s, when we discovered the genes that can carry defects leading to Alzheimer’s. For the first time, we could determine the cause.
Every Alzheimer’s gene we discovered told us that the disease is triggered by the accumulation of a toxic substance in the brain called beta-amyloid. It’s found in the senile plaques outside of nerve cells and in the synapses where the nerve cells are trying to communicate. This toxic material builds up in the brain and it causes twisted fibrils called “tangles” to form inside of nerve cells, killing them and taking their synapses with them.
As the neural network continues to disintegrate, learning and memory no longer function and dementia sets in. Dr. Tanzi and researchers at other labs are now developing therapies to clear the toxic beta-amyloid from the brain, but it has been quite challenging to do this. Even under the best conditions, successful treatments for Alzheimer’s are still at least five to ten years away.
Your Genes Don't Have to Be Your Destiny
The Alzheimer’s genes also taught us that while people with certain gene defects will almost certainly develop Alzheimer’s before they are sixty years of age, regardless of lifestyle, these are very rare cases. More than 95% of Alzheimer’s cases strike after the age of sixty, and they involve the influence of both your genetic make-up and how you live your life. In other words, most cases of the disease involve both your genes and your lifestyle.
This same pattern holds for most big age-related diseases: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. This is good news since it means that for most of us, regardless of the genetic hand dealt to us by our parents, we can adapt our lifestyle to help prevent Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases.
Lifestyle Choices for Brain Health and Memory
Two of the best ways to induce neuroplasticity are staying socially interactive, engaged, and being intellectually stimulated. So simply reading this article is helping you to make new synapses in your brain and helping to prevent Alzheimer’s in the process. In addition, here are a few more lifestyle choices that can help you maintain your brain health and memory.
Exercise: Multiple lines of research have shown that routine exercise is one of the very best ways to induce the birth of new cells in your brain and to stave off Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise increases blood and oxygen flow and helps to protect brain health. Second, exercise also helps to clear away “senile plaques” in the brain. These plaques are part of the pathology of Alzheimer’s and begin to form in all of us after the age forty.
Sleep: Another protective factor for brain health is adequate restful sleep. It is very important to get enough sleep. Did you know that you need the deepest stage of sleep called slow-wave sleep to consolidate short-term memories into long term ones? This stage of sleep puts your brain into the delta state, which also helps reduce the amount of beta-amyloid in the brain.
Human beings generally need between six and eight hours of restful sleep each night. Restful sleep means that you’re not using pharmaceuticals or alcohol to get to sleep but that you’re drifting off easily once you turn off the light and are sleeping soundly through the night. If you feel energetic and vibrant when you wake up, you had a night of restful sleep. If you feel tired and unenthusiastic, you haven’t had restful sleep.
You can get the highest quality sleep by keeping your sleep cycles in tune with the rhythms of the universe, known as circadian rhythms. This means going to bed by about 10 p.m. and waking at 6 a.m. Learn more about creating a restful sleep routine here.
Diet: To nurture your brain and memory, it is important to eat a balanced diet that focuses on fresh, whole foods while limiting sugar, fats, salt, red meat, and processed foods. Many studies show that a Mediterranean diet is healthiest. This means using olive oil in place of butter, and eating lots of whole grains, legumes, mixed nuts, fresh fruit, and whole vegetables.
Super Brain Foods
Here are a few specific foods and herbs that are particularly beneficial for the brain:
Wheat germ contains high levels of B-complex vitamins, which play a role in reducing homocysteine, an amino acid that increases when there is inflammation in the body. Elevated homocysteine levels have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and stroke. You can sprinkle a little wheat germ on cereal and yogurt – or try it on salads or popcorn.
Black currants are a rich source of antioxidants that nourish the brain cells surrounding the hippocampus, the part of the brain that ushers short-term memories into different parts of the brain, where they are recorded into long-term memory. You can eat fresh black currants when they’re in season, and use dried or frozen berries in recipes throughout the year.
This delicious vegetable contains high amounts of folic acid, which accelerates the brain’s ability to process information and boosts memory. Acorn squash has a sweet, buttery taste. Try it baked with a little cinnamon and honey drizzled over the top.
Before the golden age of the brain, we used to assume that as we got older, our brain capacity would just continue to go downhill year after year, leading us into mental and physical decline. Now the reverse is true. A movement known as the “new old age” is sweeping the nation. Older people now have higher expectations that they will remain active and vital as they age. In fact, a recent survey asked a sample of baby boomers, “When does old age begin?” The average answer was 85. As expectations rise, can our brains physically handle the challenge of old age? The answer is a resounding yes! especially if you have a super brain.
The Gifts of Neurogenesis
Let’s explore why. Did you know that new nerve cells are being born in your brain your entire life even in old age? This process is called neurogenesis. We now know that every day several thousand new nerve cells are created in the hippocampus, which is used for short-term memory and is one of the hardest-hit brain areas in Alzheimer’s disease. At the Salk Institute, neuroscientist Fred Gage showed that physical exercise and environment enrichment (stimulating surroundings) stimulate the growth of new neurons in mice. The same phenomena can be observed in zoos. Gorillas and other primates languish if they are kept in confined spaces with nothing to do,but they flourish in large enclosures with trees, swings, and toys.
Delaying Retirement Can Help Your Brain
A major study of more than 429,000 retired workers in France presented this month at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Boston underscores the importance of staying mentally engaged. According to the study conducted by INSERM, a French government agency, the rate of diagnosed Alzheimer’s was 14 percent lower in the group of workers who retired at age 65 than in the group who retired at 60. The researchers found that for each additional year that people worked beyond the average retirement age, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s decreased. Although further research is needed to understand how delaying retirement actually changes the brain, the INSERM study does show a strong correlation between the mental challenges and social connections that work can provide and lower rates of Alzheimer’s.
The bottom line for now is that as we age, key areas of the brain involved with memory and learning continue to produce new nerve cells, and this process can be stimulated by physical exercise, mentally challenging activities, and social connectedness.
Meditation helps you enter a deep state of restful awareness that releases stress and benefits the brain and your overall health. When you close your eyes and enter a state of inner quiet, even for just a few minutes, your brain gets a chance to reset itself. Scientific researchers have found that when you meditate regularly, you can actually decrease your biological age by approximately twelve years.
Listen to this guided meditation from the Chopra Center 21-Day Meditation Challenge "Perfect Health" with Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra.
Activity: 3 Steps to Enhance Your Memory
Memory involves the global functioning of the whole brain. Before you can remember anything, you must perceive it, interpret it, feel its emotional weight, pay attention (or not), consolidate it with your past experiences, and so on. There is a constantly shifting process at work, a process that is as dynamic as life itself.
You may have had the experience of getting up and going into the kitchen or some other room, and then looking around with no idea of why you went in there. The big question here is did you really forget why you went into the kitchen, or, did the reason just never registered in your short-term memory in the first place? Distractions, lack of attention, lack of mindfulness are the most common reasons for so-called “senior moments” and they can be avoided with mindful awareness.
If you want to improve your memory try the following:
- Consciously observe what you are doing.
- Associate what you are doing with an image or emotion
- Remind yourself that you are consciously registering this memory. The odds are now much higher you’ll retain and recall that memory.
Let’s apply these three steps to the example of getting home and putting your keys away. First, take the time to observe where you are putting your keys. Second, associate that location with an image, such as a nearby vase or picture. Third, remind yourself that you are consciously registering this memory. Or you can just make sure you always put your keys in the same place!
We have been emphasizing the need to relate to your brain in a new way. This is especially relevant in terms of memory. If you view every little memory lapse as a warning sign of inevitable decline and constantly complain “My memory is going,” you are reinforcing that message in your brain. Most people are too quick to blame the brain. What they should be focusing on instead is habit, self-awareness, behavior, enthusiasm, and focus, all of which are primarily mental.
If you stop paying attention and give up on learning new things and opening yourself to new experiences, you give memory no encouragement. As the simple axiom holds: Whatever you pay attention to will expand in your experience. So to encourage your memory to grow, you need to pay attention to how your life is unfolding. What does this mean specifically The list is long but it contains activities that come naturally. The only difference as you age is that you need to make more conscious choices than you did earlier in life.
- Be passionate about your life and the experiences you fill it with.
- Enthusiastically learn new things.
- Pay attention to the things you will need to remember later. Most memory lapses are actually learning lapses.
- Actively retrieve older memories; rely less on memory crutches like lists.
- Expect to keep your memory intact. Resist lower expectations from people who rationalize memory loss as “normal.”
- Don’t blame or fear occasional lapses.
- If a memory doesn’t come immediately, don’t brush it off as lost. Be patient and take the extra seconds for the brain’s retrieval system to work. Focus on things or people you associate with the lost memory, and you will likely recall it. All memories are associated with other earlier ones. This is the basis of learning.
- Be wide ranging in your mental activities. Doing a cross-word puzzle uses a different part of the memory system than remembering what groceries you need to pick up, and both are different form learning a new language or recalling the faces of people you meet. Actively exercise all aspects of memory, not just the ones that come most easily.
The Mindful Memory Program helps maximize memory throughout the brain. Studies in this area are just in their early stages, but it would appear that being open-minded is connected with mental alertness throughout a person’s lifetime, and that in turn may be a powerful way to offset the beginnings of Alzheimer’s dementia, and “normal” memory loss. It would only seem logical for such a link to exist, because being open-minded or close-minded must have a physical correlation in the brain. Perhaps the final proof will remain elusive, however, because so much of brain research consists of taking snapshots or tissue samples of a constantly shifting holistic process. Sampling one bucket of sea water can tell you a lot, but it isn’t the same as understanding the whole ocean.
The brain is a process that you are participating in, and as you do both sides change: you become different and so does your brain. Ultimately, however, your side has the power. We keep reinforcing this point because it opens the way to higher awareness, more creativity, and true freedom. The brain cannot give you those things, but it will serve you if you insist on having them.
Remember that your brain is highly susceptible to persistence. Focus on practicing the principles and tools you learned here every day, until they become part of your daily lifestyle. Use your mind to take charge of your brain and your own super brain will bloom. In no time you will enjoy greater awareness, a healthier body and brain, and a happier and more fulfilling life.